Yesterday I found myself in a café next to a student who was typing furiously to finish an overdue dissertation. She had to deliver 10,000 words, she explained, and was padding things out to distract from the bits she hadn’t researched. I, meanwhile, was reading up on the 38 bills in the government’s new parliamentary programme which seemed to take padding and distraction to new heights.
Britain is on the brink of recession, with business confidence rocky. Yet the government has no coherent plan for economic growth. Its levelling-up bill will punish landlords for empty shops, rather than reform business rates to support the high street. Its trade bill will ratify deals of minor importance. A Brexit freedoms bill will let ministers amend EU rules — but they don’t seem to know which ones. Instead, the foreign secretary threatens yet again to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, which could provoke a damaging trade war.
Ah, the machismo of legislation. “Look at our utopia bill,” bawls the minister on the ropes in a TV interview. But hyperactivity can’t conceal a lack of strategy. With the war in Ukraine becoming a quagmire, energy prices soaring and stock markets tumbling, the government seems stuck in first gear, unable to adapt. Unlike my student friend, it hasn’t even started on the serious swotting.
Boris Johnson’s administration continues to be better at campaigning than governing. I applaud governments which change course when they’re wrong — but delaying planned audit and regulatory reforms, diluting his National Insurance rise and giving contradictory signals about an emergency Budget looks chaotic.
The government seems to have only two guiding principles: setting political traps for its opponents, and extending the power of the executive. Its Rwanda immigration scheme falls into the first category: a policy known inside Whitehall to be unworkable, but which is popular and makes critics look wet. More sinister still is the stealthy encroachment upon institutions which are supposed to act as checks on government.
A few weeks ago the government gave ministers new powers to determine the remit of the Electoral Commission, the watchdog which oversees UK elections. Barely noticed was a provision for ministers to draw up a new “strategy and policy statement” for the watchdog. Such interference, the Commission claims, has no precedent in comparable democracies. Jonathan Evans, chair of the committee on standards in public life, described the reforms as akin to “giving a toddler a gun . . . it may not immediately lead to disaster but it’s an extremely dangerous thing to do.” Lord Evans knows a thing or two about danger: he used to head M15.
Not every country has an electoral commission: what matters is whether their regulator is independent. The insurgents who stormed the US Capitol Building last year were unable to overturn the election result because of robust institutions. Weakening such institutions, even in small ways, is reckless. Why would any government do this? Perhaps because of the Commission’s zealous investigation of figures in Vote Leave, or because it oversees party finances. No explanation has been forthcoming. But there is an arrogance in failing to consider how these laws might be used by future governments of a very different political complexion.
To raise such concerns is to be accused of hysteria. I have already been criticised in those terms for opposing the government’s plans to give the police more powers and to curb the right of protest. Despite being defeated in the House of Lords, the home secretary is bringing these back in a new Public Order Bill, daring civil libertarians to be “soft on crime”. She wins either way, with Conservative party members blissfully unaware that these powers could be deployed against them at a future Countryside Alliance march.
The proposed bill of rights seems to serve a similar dual purpose. Its vague language about restoring “common sense” in order to “ensure the constitution is defended” from some unnamed assailant sounds Orwellian. Far from being a bill to promote rights, some fear it will reduce them, and limit the citizens’ ability to hold the executive to account. Yet the lawyer David Allen Green believes it is a piece of “vanity legislation” — designed to convince supporters that the government is scrapping the Human Rights Act, when in fact the European Convention on Human Rights is enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. We won’t know until we see the detail.
And there’s the final problem. Successive governments have enforced their will by drafting vague outline bills which can be fleshed out later with little parliamentary scrutiny. The Brexit freedoms bill is essentially one giant “Henry VIII” clause — under which ministers will repeal whatever they like. In a lecture this week, the former Lord Chief Justice Igor Judge warned about the “overmighty executive” which has resulted from these tactics. In 1780, he said, the Commons passed a resolution that “the influence of the crown has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished”. Substitute the word “executive” for “crown” today, the judge says, and such a resolution might be defeated.
There is a fin de siècle feel about Britain’s politics. Prince Charles’s standing in for the Queen at the state opening of parliament was a sad symbol of a slow-motion abdication. His script came from a tired, weak cabinet addicted to campaigning, abdicating its responsibility to think big in challenging times even as the police issued more “partygate” fines to staff in Downing Street. The caravan will move on eventually — but some of the destruction it leaves will be indelible.