CONSERVATIVE threats to disestablish the Church of England in response to this week’s letter by the five Anglican Primates, which warned the Government against breaking the law, was as unsurprising as it was shocking. Bully-boy tactics have become, sadly, one of the trademark characteristics of the current Government. And this is only part of a strategy by Boris Johnson to push Britain’s unwritten constitution to its limits — and indeed beyond them.
Conventions have been flouted brazenly by Mr Johnson and his unelected “disruptor” adviser Dominic Cummings ever since they sought to close down Parliament for five weeks without any stated reason — abusing the Government’s power of prorogation for a purpose for which it was never intended. There was even a suspicion that the Prime Minister had lied to the Queen.
When the Supreme Court ruled the move illegal, Mr Johnson resorted to long-standing tactics of smear and spin, prompting his allies in the populist press to headline the judges as “Enemies of the People”. The media were briefed that Mr Cummings, a man with little respect for process or the rule of law, “wants to get the judges sorted”. One government minister even publicly resorted to the Trumpian trope of declaring that “many people are saying” that the judges were biased.
It went beyond rhetoric. Ministers are floating new curbs on judicial review, the common-law process by which ordinary citizens have a right to ask the courts to ensure that government decisions are fair, impartial, and legal. There is talk of giving ministers a say in judicial appointments. This is the kind of intimidation that we expect in a banana republic.
The Prime Minister has deployed the same bullying tactics against the Civil Service, sacking a succession of Permanent Secretaries in an attempt to make independent civil servants more compliant. He has tried threats to bring the BBC to the Tory heel, leaking that he was to make the right-wing columnist, Charles Moore, its chairman. And he deployed the same tactics this week in the bad-faith negotiations with the political leaders of Greater Manchester, making offers of cash and then withdrawing them, and spinning to the media details of conversations that, the northern politicians insisted, had never actually happened.
Mr Moore was elevated to become Lord Moore as part of an attempt to pack the House of Lords with Mr Johnson’s Brexit cronies, leading to the bizarre situation in which peerages were granted to the cricketer Ian Botham, and the controversialist Claire Fox, while they were denied, in the teeth of normal custom, to the outgoing Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, and the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, both of whom voted Remain.
All this, together with the increased tendency to govern by decree, without giving MPs a chance to exercise proper parliamentary scrutiny, is part of a brazen attempt to rule without transparency or accountability.
A number of distinguished lawyers have declared this week that it is perfectly constitutional for the Government to legislate in a manner inconsistent with international law. But what is constitutional is not automatically moral. That is the point that the five Archbishops were making in their letter.
Contempt for the law and proper process may bring short-term advantage — but at the expense of something far more important.
Read a Letter to the Editor on the topic