The absurd spectacle of MPs stuck in a 1.3km, socially distanced, coronavirus conga last week has, predictably, caused widespread ridicule. Instead, it should have set alarm bells ringing.
What the ridicule covered up was the government’s decision to exclude a third of MPs (and the millions of the voters they represent) from effective participation in parliamentary democracy.
This was done deliberately by the government precisely to bring our parliament into disrepute. This is a new and deeply sinister development in British politics.
Never in the modern era has a UK government been run by people who have so little respect for democracy and who are so utterly contemptuous of the unwritten rules of our parliamentary system. In the absence of a written constitution these conventions are our only protection.
This is a government which pursues an authoritarian “anti-politics” agenda. They exist on a very different amoral trajectory to anything which has come before. To call them Conservatives is a travesty of the truth. In reality, they are right wing revolutionaries who have taken over the shell of the Conservative party.
Last year, as the election loomed, Tories who had the temerity to hold an opinion contrary to Boris Johnson’s Brextremists were ruthlessly purged, regardless of their seniority or standing in the party. No dissent was tolerated. The national populism which featured in the 2016 vote Leave referendum campaign was imported wholesale into Downing Street last July, where it now festers and spreads like dry rot.
The cabinet is now made up of nodding dogs put in place for their loyalty to the “world king” and bloviator in chief Boris Johnson. Talent and experience counts for nothing. The cabinet is openly described as a “Potemkin” structure where all decisions are taken by a small clique and dutifully rubber stamped by the rest afterwards. Independence of any kind is punished, as Sajid Javid discovered when he sought to avoid the abject humiliation Dominic Cummings had organised for him at the last reshuffle. The current chancellor is only in place because he readily acquiesced to being Cummings’ glove puppet.
Even before the 2019 General Election, when they had no majority and no mandate, Johnson’s unelected minority government acted as if they had carte blanche to do as they pleased. They perpetually placed the referendum “mandate” above the 2017 election result, which had delivered a hung parliament. They bleeped over their dubious conduct of the referendum itself including the flagrant breaches of campaign expenditure law which cast doubt on the validity of the result.
They pitted MPs elected in 2017 against the 2016 referendum plebiscitary “mandate” in an unashamedly populist way, careless of any damage that such a stance might do to respect for democratic norms in the future, or to the personal safety of MPs themselves. They never admitted that contrary opinions had any justification whatsoever. Nor did they accept that the views and wishes of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU could be legitimately represented in political discourse, let alone accommodated by the winners in a spirit of generosity. This is the essence of the authoritarian mindset.
The Chief Law Officer was found in contempt for refusing to release legal advice which parliament had voted should be published, but he did not do the decent thing and resign. Instead he pontificated about a dead parliament which needed to be put out of its misery. The Prime Ministers’ Svengali, Cummings is famously in contempt of parliament for refusing to give evidence to the DCMS select committee about the behaviour of Vote Leave during the referendum.
The cabinet appears to have been forged in Cummings’ image as he pursues his “anti-politics” political agenda and enjoys profiting from dividing the country down the middle. His incitement of mob anger about “elites” is careless of democracy and the rule of law. His recent behaviour breaching the lockdown rules demonstrates the contempt he has for everyone but the “elite” he has assembled around him to rule by fear. He appears to care as little for the civil service, the BBC or any other UK institution he regards as a blockage to his plans.
The appointment of the extremist ERG faction leader Jacob Rees-Mogg to the role of leader of the House was a sign of the government’s contempt. Leaders of the House are meant to be consensus seeking figures who represent the Commons in government as well as the government in the Commons. He has made no attempt to do this – becoming the worst leader of the House in living memory. He has had no qualms about trashing democratic norms and protections.
He used the worst type of sophistry to justify what was proved to be the illegal shutting down of parliament for the convenience of the new hard Brexit regime. This was an unprecedented act which dragged the Queen into politics at a time of maximum contention. It tore up all restraint and decency for crude political convenience. Condemned by the Supreme Court, he appears to have had not a moment of regret or self reflection about his own behaviour or the dangerous precedent it set. He has since continued to outdo himself, unilaterally contriving greater outrages to the fair and democratic working of the House of Commons, excluding many members whilst claiming their exclusion is their choice.
This government targets parliament for ridicule because it is a democratic foundry where new political possibilities are created and alternatives can be born. It is ultimately in parliament that the government can be held to account for its failures. This populist right wing government wants no such accountability. It wants any democratic alternative to be stillborn so it attempts to discredit the place itself. For Boris Johnson’s government, no lie is too big to be spoken, no promise too great to be broken and no democratic protections are too important to be torn asunder. Welcome to their new normal.
Angela Eagle is Labour MP for Wallasey.