Thursday, 18 Jul 2024

Boris Johnson scandals show need for constitutional reform, says major report

Experts say Boris Johnson’s tenure as prime minister damaged both public trust in the government and the UK’s standing on the international stage. 

In a major report, the Institute for Government and Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy concluded the UK constitution is in urgent need of reform after successive scandals exposed significant weaknesses in governance.

The review was conducted over 18 months and supported by an advisory board that included former Conservative ministers Sir Robert Buckland and Sir David Lidington, alongside shadow leader of the House of Lords Baroness Smith of Basildon and former Labour Mayor of Liverpool Joanna Anderson.

Authors of the report emphasised that the UK’s lack of a consolidated, written constitution has led to an over-reliance on ‘self-restraint from political actors rather than legal checks.’

Boris Johnson’s actions as prime minister, in particular his handling of the Partygate scandal and the Northern Ireland protocol, were highlighted as key examples of how the bar for conduct in office has been repeatedly pushed in recent years. 

The review said: ‘Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue parliament, disregard for the Ministerial Code, willingness to break the law while in office and misleading of parliament were all examples of a prime minister who, in the words of his cabinet secretary, believed he had “a mandate to test established boundaries”.

‘Not all of his misdemeanours were unprecedented; but his premiership shone a light on existing problems within the UK’s governing arrangements, and heightened the concern that there has been a steady erosion of the tacit norms on which government in the UK rests.’

Against a wider backdrop of deepening mistrust toward governments around the world, as well as growing polarisation in well-established democracies, the authors of the report added that recent political events in the UK have ‘underlined the urgent need for serious thinking about the nature and trajectory of the [country’s] constitution.’

To pursue this, they recommended setting up a new committee specifically to oversee issues related to the UK constitution, as well as expanding the ability of Parliament to scrutinise proposed legislation, and empowering the civil service to advise on matters of constitutional significance. 

Hannah White, director of the Institute for Government, said: ‘Our recommendations are intended to ensure that any politician considering changing the UK constitution is supported with robust advice, and to ensure the UK constitution is changed only with appropriate consideration and public support.’

Co-director of the Bennett Institute, Mike Kenny, added there is a ‘growing imperative’ for politicians to ensure that ‘citizens’ deliberations become a regular, integral part of the process of making and examining constitutional change’.

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: ‘The government takes seriously its constitutional role and responsibility for upholding our unique constitutional settlement.

‘We already have two parliamentary committees which are responsible for scrutinising constitutional policy and holding the government accountable on these issues.’

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