Boris Johnson and his party still ride high in the polls. His handling of the pandemic, the catastrophic collapse in Afghanistan, his troubled relationship with the truth at the despatch box have so far had little effect on voters. Whilst the Twitteratti have wailed about the other excesses of the Johnson government from breaches of the Ministerial Code or threatening limited and specific breaches of international law (students of history recalling the limited and specific breaches of Belgian neutrality in August 1914 or Polish independence in 1939 should take note), the electorate is unmoved. This is not healthy for our politics, international reputation or our fragile democracy but it has yet to cut through to the general public. This may be about to change for two reasons: the imminent breach of National Insurance pledges that is on every front page and a recent change in our constitution that you have probably never heard of. In doing so, Johnson becomes the latest accomplice in a power grab that has been undermining our democracy for almost a decade – removing the electorate from the constitutional fabric of the nation.
The government has announced National Insurance and other tax increases to fund social care. This is big. This unequivocally breaches a 2019 manifesto commitment. The triple lock on pensions – another manifesto commitment – will also be abandoned.
Of course, manifestos are not legal documents or holy writ, but in the minds of voters they are not far off. What else connects electors to their MP other than the promises they made when seeking their vote? Individual MPs remain bound by them. A minority government may struggle to implement their programme but that doesn’t entitle an MP to suddenly discover that their conscience requires them to now do the opposite of their pledges. Conservative MPs like Dominic Grieve and David Gauke who reneged on the 2017 No Deal manifesto position found this to their cost at the subsequent election.
The manifesto has played a central role in British political culture for generations. As a young private secretary in Downing Street, Douglas Herd literally ticked off the pledges as Heath’s legislative programme progressed. The respected Institute for Government has a very helpful ‘manifesto tracker’ in immaculate powerpoint. Recall the howls of protest in 2017 and the immediate U-turn as Philip Hammond introduced National Insurance changes that technically didn’t even breach the 2015 manifesto: the perception of breach was enough.
Voters will make allowances for catastrophic, unforeseen events – natural disasters, wars, economic depressions, perhaps even pandemics? These will derail any legislative programme or budget and we have already seen manifesto commitments on international aid abandoned. Helpfully for Johnson, the SNP invented the ‘material change of circumstances’ caveat. It has empowered the SNP to justify demanding another independence referendum after their Holyrood election triumphs in 2016 and 2021. Brexit was undeniably a material change of circumstances and their 2016 Holyrood manifesto was explicit about it. Fair enough. It is a pity the SNP didn’t share this caveat with voters prior to the 2014 referendum.
Thus, on a financial issue when millions of us have been paid to be on furlough at the taxpayer’s expense, Johnson may get lucky and voters turn a blind eye. So much for financial commitments, but what excuse can there be for a constitutional change at this time?
In July, without a mandate, without the consent of the voters, Johnson abolished English Votes for English Laws (EVEL). Whilst a fairly byzantine process for addressing the ‘West Lothian’ question, it ensured only English MPs could vote on purely English matters. Not particularly exciting. It’s an important constitutional issue nonetheless – announced by Cameron on the very day that Scotland voted to stay in the Union in 2014.
This undermines the convention that constitutional change needs the consent of voters. This is not simply academic – it ensures acceptance of big changes. Whether it was Wilson calling a referendum on staying in EEC or Blair offering Scotland and Wales the choice on devolution or changing the House of Lords, all these profound decisions had first received public approval at the ballot box. Whatever your view of the 2016 referendum, Cameron’s right to delete the 1975 result and hold a new one was largely unchallenged. It was in the Conservative 2015 manifesto and Cameron had won. The vast marches opposing Brexit from 2016-19 were non-existent in the few months between the December 2019 election and the onset of the pandemic. The people had spoken. Brexit was going to happen whether you liked it or not.
The alternative of course is chaos. Parliament thus entitled to do whatever it likes, unconstrained by the ‘mere piffle’ of manifestos. This make-it-up-as-you-go-along constitution has now replaced the principle of voter consent that had served us well for generations. Under this theory of Parliamentary infallibility MPs would be perfectly entitled to wake up tomorrow and vote to abolish the Monarchy. It would be wise not to test whether voters would accept decisions of MPs on such a profound matter without their consent.
It’s been nearly two years since the ‘Tyranny of Parliament” nearly broke our politics. We have seen all too often the bizarre situation where MPs were positively applauded for reneging on their manifesto pledges. Yes, Parliament is sovereign, but only up to a point. On profound constitutional matters in the democratic age, whatever the legal form, voters are sovereign. At the dawn of our democracy, Messrs Bagehot and Dicey, the bastions of constitutional theory and prophets of Parliamentary sovereignty, both recognised this.
With the abolition of EVEL, Johnson has now made common cause with his erstwhile foes from the Remain Parliament of 2017-19 and airbrushed the voters out of the process of constitutional change. This is pregnant with danger for our democracy. If this tinkering to our constitution can go largely unnoticed, then maybe Johnson could feel entitled to make the most momentous changes. Perhaps Johnson might feel lucky and approve #indyref2 despite his pledge to refuse (it’s on page 45 of the 2019 manifesto). Only, as Cameron was to find with his third referendum, sometimes your luck runs out. To lose Scotland after a considered and approved electoral process with mandates at Westminster and in Scotland (as happened with devolution) is one thing, but to lose it on a whim is quite another. Whilst we celebrate Team GB’s tremendous efforts at Tokyo, lest we forget, the inescapable consequences of Scottish independence are that Team GB and the Union Jack would be no more.
It is time to draw a line under this. Time for constitutional commentators and journalists to put the divisions of Brexit behind us. Time to unite behind the nearly-forgotten principles of British democracy – the electorate is ultimately sovereign and our constitution can only be changed with their consent.