EU Referendum

Politics: a people's government?


According to the venerable Charles Moore, the "brilliant" Boris Johnson has been let down by his own carelessness, allowing himself to get "ensnared" by a venal media led, of course, by the BBC with the Today programme in the vanguard.

Yet, despite being so laughably partisan about his hero, Moore has a point. "The foetid air of Westminster intrigue, hypocrisy and moralism", he complains, "stifles the important things we need to know about our country and our world in these weird times".

Indeed it does, but the point he misses is that coverage is not a matter of either or. One problem is, as I see it, the media's tendency to obsess about one particular issue, elevating it to such an extent that it dominates the news agenda.

But there's another dynamic involved here, to which I alluded in an earlier piece. This is what we might call the "Al Capone effect", where a transgressor is brought down over a relatively minor issue for want of evidence on the greater sins.

Here, it could be argued that we have a seriously inadequate prime minister but such are the ways of British politics that it is very difficult to bring senior politicians down over substantive issues, so the media focus on the trivia where the weakness is apparent and less easy to defend.

Actually, that is not altogether true as Sir Anthony Eden resigned in the wake of the 1956 Suez affair, ostensibly for health reasons, but primarily because the venture had been an unmitigated disaster.

Possibly, there are substantive issues over which the media could take Johnson to the cleaners. My issue of choice might be the burgeoning energy crisis, although such is the timescale that it would be hard to pin all the blame on one man.

The same goes for the clumsy handling of the Covid-19 epidemic, where the fault goes all the way back to Blair and involves failures of every administration since. Johnson merely had the misfortune to be left standing when the music stopped.

To that extent, whether it is "wallpapergate", or "partygate" or the intervention on Owen Paterson's suspension, these are issues which can be placed unequivocally and exclusively at the door of Johnson. The buck stops with him and he can't pass it on to a predecessor or another agency.

Apart from the very obvious example of Suez, therefore, one wonders if it is actually possibly to bring down prime ministers on substantive grounds – their roles will either be so bound up in secrecy, or the responsibility will be so diffuse that it is almost impossible to make any charges stick.

The trivia, in the context, become the proxy issues, for which prime ministers can be sanctioned when other, graver charges might not stick. But, as proxies, they can be taken fairly to represent a situation where the politicians have lost the trust or confidence of the public, in between elections where casting a vote is too blunt an instrument or too slow.

And, although – as Moore has done – it is easy (and sometimes entirely justified) to cast aspersions on the motives and behaviour of the media, in this instance, it could well be that the public get a significant voice in determining the fate of Johnson, through the medium of next week's by-election in North Shropshire.

Already, the Telegraph is calling the election Johnson's "own personal referendum", suggesting that: "If the Tories lose their 'safe seat', it could be the tipping point that sees the Prime Minister facing a leadership challenge".

Coming up to the second anniversary of the 2019 election victory, The Times is reporting that Johnson's cabinet rivals are circling, with the prime minister in "crisis mode".

Yet, it will be the voters of North Shropshire who will most likely take the decisive step. In effect, they will be acting as the proxies for the rest of the nation. There is no other mechanism by which a prime minister can be called to task, mid-term, any more than the people can appoint (or approve) a new premier in between general elections – and then, not at all because, in theory, we vote for MPs not leaders.

Perhaps if we had direct elections for our prime ministers, things might be different. With proper separation of powers, where MPs were elected to scrutinise the executive instead of acting as a (shallow) ministerial gene pool, we might then have the possibility of impeachment, with parliament taking a hand, or the process of recall. In neither event, would the media be the ultimate arbiters.

Thus, it really isn't sufficient for the likes of Moore to whinge about the ways of the media. The headline of his column says that Johnson "makes life far too easy for his enemies in the Westminster village", and that the PM's "fumbling excuses about a party taking place last year in Downing Street gave the press all the ammunition they needed".

But if it is only such issues over which the media can make life difficult for prime ministers, then they will exploit them for that very reason. If, on the other hand, we had a professional and combative parliament, freed from the constraints of party politics, we might see MPs taking the lead, with effective, real-time evaluation of policy.

As it stands, where we have an ineffectual parliament, populated by low-grade party hacks and wannabe ministers, we will not have any serious or effective scrutiny of the executive.

We can see this in particular from the lacklustre performance of select committees, and from the way their hearings and reports are largely ignored by the media. If the system was strengthened, not least by giving committees the power to summon witnesses (including ministers and civil servants) and to demand that evidence be given under oath, then what was produced might have more gravitas.

Such power might extend to the approval of ministers before they could be appointed by prime ministers – a power that the European Parliament has in respect of Commissioners - together with the ability to dismiss individual ministers on specified grounds, a power the EP does not have.

Generally, a more powerful parliament might have had a beneficial effect on the ongoing management of Covid OMG v. 3.0. As it stands, there is a widespread suspicion that the current round of controls are a "dead cat" response by a weakened prime minister to divert attention from his own troubles.

If, on the other hand, such measures were examined swiftly and effectively by a select committee, supported by its own independent experts and able to call a wide range of witnesses, any vote in the full House would be taken on the basis of the committee's recommendations, and thus be elevated beyond the party political.

As it is, when parliament votes on Wednesday, we may see a significant backbench rebellion – which may or may not be tempered by electoral and party political considerations – with the opposition deciding whether to vote for or against in accordance with the political advantage it might secure.

Whatever the outcome, the measures will lack conviction and authority, and compliance levels are expected to be poor. Yet, if measures are needed, it serves no-one to have a system which is unable to secure the trust and willing cooperation of those who it affects.

What has been going on over the last weeks, therefore, is far more than a media storm. Judged objectively, we are seeing the effects of a dysfunctional system of government, which has lost the trust of the people and which exposes vulnerabilities which can be exploited by an equally dysfunctional media, for reasons which are not necessarily in the interests of the people.

Some might suggest that this sort of glorious muddle, for which the British are famed, eventually produces the right result, but there seems less and less confidence that we have a system that is fit for purpose. If there came out of this mess a realisation that fundamental reform was necessary, than perhaps what we are going through would be worth it.

In the event, though, we are likely to see more of the same. If there is to be reform, the impetus will have to come from elsewhere. We are a long way from the "people's government" that Johnson claimed we had back in those heady days (for some) in December 2019.

Also published on Turbulent Times.