Politics is often a blood sport. When John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher as British prime minister in the 1990s, opinion polls showed how unpopular he was.
But to the surprise of many, he won the 1992 General Election for the Conservatives. Mr Major’s administration was, however, dogged by allegations of “sleaze”. Some MPs were found to have taken money in exchange for political favours. But whatever you thought of John Major, and however nasty some of the sleaze proved to be, he himself did the right thing.
He cracked down hard on those who did wrong, and as someone from a working class family he seemed a very different type of Conservative leader from many of his fellows with their background of Eton, Oxford and endless privilege. Nowadays John Major has retired from active politics, but he has returned to cause a stir.
In a recent speech and newspaper article he has made clear his distaste for the leadership of Boris Johnson (Eton and Oxford, of course.) Much of the coverage of Major’s intervention has focused on his criticism of Mr Johnson personally, his staff and supporters, after their unbelievable excuses for breaking lockdown laws.
As Mr Major put it, they look "shifty". But what is most interesting about this former prime minister’s intervention against a fellow Conservative is that he has noticed that the damage is not just to Boris Johnson or his allies, but to the institutions of British democracy itself. It is not just about personalities but about a style of government which risks undermining British constitutional principles, conventions and the norms of behaviour that we have come to expect, even within the sometimes brutal world of party politics.
The damaged institutions Mr Major catalogues include parliament itself, the judiciary, the civil service and the BBC. The minister responsible for the BBC, Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, seems to loathe the world’s most famous broadcaster. She suggested that the way the corporation is funded is about to end, then backtracked, but the threat remains.
As Mr Major notes, starving funds from the BBC, “a crucial part of our overseas soft power” is “self-defeating for UK interests”. Then there is the British civil service. Like every huge bureaucracy, it has its failings but the Johnson government has treated public servants with great hostility as a useless bureaucratic “blob”. Mr Major says this is “foolish and wrong”.
The English and Scottish courts were also hauled into a row when Boris Johnson tried to prorogue parliament. That is a mechanism by which the prime minister could send MPs home, but in Mr Johnson's case it was clearly an undemocratic attempt to prevent parliament debating the Brexit mess. When the UK Supreme Court unanimously found against the Johnson government, the prime minister and his allies not only disagreed with the verdict, they suggested the judges were guilty of a “constitutional coup” – precisely what Mr Johnson himself had attempted.
The Johnson government then even contemplated new powers to break international law by unilaterally changing the Brexit deal as it affected Northern Ireland. As one minister put it, this law-breaking was only “in a limited but specific way”. Perhaps bank robbers or dangerous drivers could claim that they, too, only break the law “in a limited but specific way”. Fortunately these proposals were abandoned too.
The reason John Major is concerned by all this dodgy dealing goes well beyond his obvious dislike for Boris Johnson. He also dislikes intensely the lies and half-truths associated with the prime minister, falsehoods which Mr Major says are simply “not acceptable”.
But the real reason for Mr Major’s concern is that public trust in British democracy is at a very low ebb. The constant attacks on the institutions of democracy by our own government are causing damage well-beyond a here-today-gone-tomorrow Johnson administration blundering around in Downing Street.
The US presidential democratic system famously depends on the separation of powers. The president, the Congress and the courts are deliberately separated and act as checks and balances on each other to prevent any one branch of government becoming too powerful.
The British system relies on precisely the opposite idea, the fusion of powers through what is called “the Crown in Parliament”. It means that the executive branch (the prime minister and government) and the legislative branch (parliament) work together under the monarch, in this case the Queen. But in practice, a prime minister with an enormous majority in parliament (as Boris Johnson now has) who pushes his powers to the limit can profoundly undermine the traditional solidity of British democracy. Or as John Major puts it: “if any of that delicate balance goes astray – as it has, as it is – our democracy is undermined.”
No one, certainly not John Major, is accusing Boris Johnson of dictatorial ambitions. But when someone as calm and as canny as John Major sounds alarm bells, it is time to take notice. The system is not working.