The cabinet reshuffle shows Johnson and Cummings are working to undermine the rule of law
Number 10's plans to weaken the courts, limit judicial review and unpick the Human Rights Act will allow Ministers to break the law with impunity and enable the Government to violate your rights
When the Government rides roughshod over people’s rights, the law is our vehicle for justice. When the Ministry of Defence sent soldiers into combat in Iraq without the proper equipment; when outrageous Home Office fees denied children their rights as citizens; when patients died from substandard care at Stafford Hospital, it was the courts we turned to for justice.
But now, the Conservatives are trying to stop people from exercising power against a Government when it – wilfully or inadvertently – tramples on their rights. First they cut legal aid. Now they’re threatening judicial review and the courts themselves.
With their Cabinet reshuffle on Thursday, Boris Johnson and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings demonstrated that they are not interested in competence, and certainly not in diversity. (They’ve somehow managed to reduce the already tiny numbers of women and BAME people in Cabinet posts!) What they are interested is their own power.
The Business and Northern Ireland Secretaries were sacked for not showing sufficient loyalty. The Lord Chancellor was made to bend the knee to Cummings, while the Chancellor of the Exchequer was forced to resign because he wouldn’t. And Geoffrey Cox – deemed too independent-minded for Johnson’s taste – was replaced as Attorney General by Suella Braverman.
Braverman has written frequently about her desire to weaken our courts, limit judicial review and roll back protections for human rights. By appointing her as the Government’s chief legal adviser, Johnson and Cummings are trying to erode one of the most crucial constraints on their power: not intransigent Cabinet Ministers but the rule of law itself.
Johnson and Cummings have repeatedly demonstrated that they believe they are above the law.
After the Supreme Court ruled that their decision to shut down Parliament in September was unlawful, disturbing threats of retaliation emerged from Number 10: ending the independence of the courts by making judges political appointees; restricting people’s ability to ask the courts to review the lawfulness of government actions; withdrawing from the European Convention on Human Rights (which, of course, had nothing to do with that case).
But Cummings’ loathing of the courts goes back much further than Brexit, prorogation and Lady Hale’s spider brooch.
When he was Michael Gove’s adviser at the Department for Education he published a rambling 237-page manifesto entitled “Some thoughts on education and political priorities”. In footnote 199 (!) he wrote that: “management decisions are undermined many times per day by advice to do things ‘to avoid losing a judicial review’”.
Further on (footnote 227), he argued that “massive changes are vital” – not just to judicial review but also to “the role of lawyers and legal advice in Whitehall” and the UK’s relationship with the European Court of Human Rights. And be in no doubt: those “changes” he’s talking about aren’t about strengthening the rule of law; they’re about enabling Conservative Ministers to act without regard to the law.
Essentially, Cummings believes that Gove would have been a super-successful Education Secretary, if only those pesky civil servants hadn’t forced him to obey the law. And Cummings is determined to make sure that, now he’s in Number 10, he and Boris Johnson don’t have their power limited by the same restraints.
This should be incredibly alarming, no matter your political persuasion. The rule of law is fundamental to our society, and Johnson and Cummings are actively working to undermine it.
Be in no doubt what their plans to weaken the courts, limit judicial review and unpick the Human Rights Act would mean. They would allow Ministers to break the law with impunity. They would enable the Government to violate your rights. They would make it harder to secure inquiries or put things right when mistakes are made.
Liberal Democrats couldn’t disagree more with Johnson and Cummings’ dangerous, authoritarian vision of an all-powerful Government, where Ministers are above the law.
We will not stand by and allow them to undermine the rule and erode individual rights and freedoms. Liberal Democrats will always defend individuals’ abilities to challenge the mistakes and malintent of Governments.