In a futile attempt to prevent Boris Johnson’s defenestration last year, Jacob Rees Mogg tried to browbeat his ministerial colleagues by demanding that a change of Prime Minister required a general election.
Johnson himself seemed equally deluded that he had achieved a personal mandate in 2019 to which no successor could lay claim.
Our constitution – at the moment at least – doesn’t work like that. We don’t elect a president. We vote for individual MPs who collectively give authority to an executive team, and (in theory) hold them to account.
But is it working like that?
In recent months a range of commentators from across the political spectrum have identified a series of faults and follies, which call in question our democratic norms. With some 53 years of parliamentary service between us we attempt a more comprehensive analysis in our book Can Parliament Take Back Control?, published this week.
Amidst all the other challenges which politicians will face after the next election the damaged relationship between Parliament and the executive may seem relatively less urgent. Yet the insidious shift of power from the former to the latter in recent years may prove to undermine the very foundations of Britain’s democratic constitution.
In so doing, it could make it increasingly difficult to secure public support for practical responses to those other challenges.
This book highlights the various ways in which governments have neutered, side-lined and ignored Parliament to an extent which now demands a deliberate restoration of the balance of power.
We suggest that events since 2015, in particular, have caused slippage towards the “elective dictatorship” about which Lord Hailsham warned in his Dimbleby Lecture in 1976. Hence our subtitle: “Britain’s Elective Dictatorship in the Johnson Aftermath”. The text of the lecture is reprinted as an annex with the encouragement of the present Lord Hailsham.
This trend has taken many forms. Weakening election campaign legislation, alongside less effective control of political donations, has increased the influence of parties with the most to spend. They in turn can dominate the House of Commons and individual MPs from the moment they secure a majority, with minimal parliamentary accountability. An incoming administration takes over the levers of power without effective endorsement by those elected to represent the public will.
The government of the day dominates the timing and priorities of the elected House (whatever its share of the poll), while bypassing the scrutiny of the appointed House when it chooses. Ministers can elude scrutiny and seek to politicise the civil service without sufficient transparency or consequence.
Our recommendations would ensure that MPs would be able to hold the executive to account far more easily – for example, we suggest that that a new Prime Minister, cabinet and government must be scrutinised and ratified by parliament, with select committees to conduct confirmatory hearings for cabinet posts.
And money talks. The latest revelations suggest we are drifting towards Trumpite distortion of our politics. More millions of pounds – rather than more millions of votes – could determine the outcome of the forthcoming election.
In our proposals discussing election law and standards in public life, we include recommendations, both for election spending to ensure a level playing field and around party donations, to address these problems.
Does Starmer’s Labour Party recognise this slippery slope?
Which brings us back to Mogg. Increasingly, this Conservative government behaves as if it has a mandate beyond that provided by the election of individual MPs, who should hold it to account, rather than the other way round.
Will the next government be any different?
Our analysis highlights in careful detail ways in which the imbalance has increased, and makes a number of recommendations for reversing the trend.
In so doing, we challenge those who will serve in the next Parliament to face up to the responsibility they will have to prevent a further slide into “elective dictatorship”.
Will Parliament take back control? Read our analysis and see what you think!
And do join us at the Liberal Democrat conference this weekend on Saturday 23 September. We will be signing the book at the Lib Dem Image stall in Bournemouth International Centre at 5pm and after the rally at 7.30 pm, we are hosting a reception with free wine and discussion with us in the Mezzanine Suite in the Royal Bath Hotel. Come and say hi.
“The anticipated 2024 general election presents a critical opportunity to reflect on the problems which have been revealed or exacerbated by the successive disruptions of Brexit, Covid-19 and the cost of living crisis. This timely and readable volume – produced by two experienced former parliamentarians, with extensive knowledge of parliamentary systems at home and abroad – is an important intervention in the debate which is now so urgently needed.” – Dr Hannah White, director, Institute for Government
This post first appeared on Lib Dem Voice.