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The Rise and Fall of Boris Johnson: Whitehall versus Westminster

5 min read

At the heart of British government there is a paradox. Who rules, and with what authority? To which the answer has always been a both / and – Westminster and Whitehall.

In the summer of 2022 Boris Johnson has made two contradictory claims.

He claimed he had a “colossal mandate” from the British voters by winning 14 million votes in 2019. But he also claimed – after the “vote of confidence” amongst Tory MPs in June 2022 – to have a new mandate from Tory MPs. So which was it? Voters or MPs?

These claims for the source of Johnson’s mandate reflect two contradictory, but nevertheless co-existing, views of the British Constitution: the Whitehall view and the Westminster view.

The Whitehall view is that British general elections are essentially plebiscites between two (or more) contending leaders, parties and manifestoes about how Britain should be governed for the next five years. If a party achieves a majority in the House of Commons it is sovereign. It has won and has the right to rule as it sees fit, with minimal checks and balances, until the next election. Accountability is mainly a matter for the electorate at the next election.

The Westminster view is that the UK is a parliamentary democracy and voters elect individual MPs for a variety of reasons – leaders, parties and manifestoes being only part of the story. And MPs, once elected, represent their constituencies – including those who did not vote for them. In this view Parliament is sovereign, not ministers. The latter derive their power from, and are accountable to, the House of Commons.

These two approaches co-exist uneasily, with the Whitehall view mostly dominant but the Westminster view constantly contending to create space for itself. And Left-Right political alignments don’t match this fault line. For example, it was the Thatcher government that massively strengthened Select Committees in the early 1980s – a very ‘Westminster’ reform. But it was leading Labour figures, including the former chief whip, Hilary Armstrong, who opposed on “Whitehall” grounds a later attempt by the Wright Committee to strengthen the Commons.

In this light Boris Johnson’s main real claim to a ‘mandate’ is a ‘Whitehall’ one – based on two plebiscites: the Brexit referendum of 2016; and the general election of 2019. He has made it abundantly clear. He  reverted to claims about “14 million votes” in the wake of his MPs' ‘mandate’ disintegrating in the face of mass resignations from his government. (Incidentally, he conveniently ignored the fact that 18 million voters did not support him in 2019).

Moreover there are multiple further examples of how his view of the constitution is an extreme version of the Whitehall view. His illegal prorogation of Parliament and his view he has a “14 million” personal mandate regardless of what Tory MPs think are clear examples of this thinking. So are multiple attacks on various attempts at constitutional and legal checks on executive authority – from parliament, the courts or the civil service.

In some respects this can be seen as a continuation of a long running English struggle between monarchical and parliamentary authority going back centuries and pre-dating the Union with Scotland and later Ireland. From 1688 onwards Monarchical power was slowly transferred from the actual Monarch to the Prime Minister in Whitehall, while in parallel the Lords slowly gave way to the Commons as the dominant part of Westminster. But the modern “Whitehall” view is more a creation of the 20th century, fusing the wartime rise of central state authority with a theory of democracy, promoted above all by the Labour Party, that emphasised loyalty to the party outside Parliament.

There are those who argue essentially that these contradictions and ‘grey areas’ that lie at the heart of the UK system of government provide it with a unique flexibility and adaptability. They are creative tensions. This may be partially true.

Recent experience however suggests otherwise. When a House of Commons majority sought to constrain the Johnson government in 2019, to prevent what it saw as reckless decisions on Brexit, the system went into a crisis. The assumption that any government would not break long established constitutional conventions proved inadequate. It was only the intervention of the Supreme Court, upholding an uncompromising “Westminster” view of the constitution, that prevented an attempted “Whitehall” coup. There was even talk of the Government advising the Monarch to veto legislation that had passed through Parliament against the wishes of the Government. What we got was not creative tension, but destructive conflict.

No system of democratic government is perfect, and all need to be adaptable. The lesson from most liberal democracies over the past 300 years is that those which have a a clear balance and distribution of powers tend to be more robust and more democratic than those that don’t.

The Johnson government tried to push the Whitehall view to extremes and undermine the checks embodied in the more parliamentary Westminster view of our constitution.

At its worst, Johnson appeared to believe that this extreme view of his personal mandate derived from the 2016 referendum and the 2019 election placed him above the normal rules of accountability and even the law. This was not just a personal foible; it reflected a long-standing version of our constitution.

There is little sign that the contenders to replace him even acknowledge, let alone propose remedies, for this problem, even though their accession to office without a general election depends more on the “Westminster” view than the “Whitehall” view. They may not be as personally scandalous as Johnson, but that is no guarantee that once in office they won’t be just as constitutionally extremist as he was. Which potentially makes them even more dangerous.

David Howarth, Professor of Law and Public Policy, University of Cambridge and former Liberal Democrat MP.

Colin Talbot, Professor of Government (Emeritus), University of Manchester and Visiting Fellow, Cambridge.

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