On a night that symbolized Liz Truss’ chaotic premiership, confusion reigned in parliament as an opposition motion on the controversial issue of fracking became a vote of confidence in her leadership. Labor MPs reported that Conservatives were mistreated and “bullied” in the chamber by government whips – who reportedly tried to resign in the aftermath. The episode highlights the anti-democratic tendencies visible in the Truss government, as well as the potential consequences of such an approach within the British system.
The protracted contest for the leadership of the Conservative party, which lasted eight weeks of the summer and in which Truss and Rishi Sunak competed for the affection of some 170,000 party members, seemed somewhat disconnected from reality. The fact that such a small, potentially unrepresentative cohort of people was able to determine the next prime minister caused many, not least Russia’s pariah president Vladimir Putin, to label the selection process as undemocratic.
The role of party members in leadership competitions is a growing source of disagreement in British politics. This debate culminated in the wake of Truss’s leadership candidate, as she was not the lead candidate at any stage of the first ballot – when MPs made their choice for leader. Truss won a premiership mandate from Tory members in the second round of the contest by promising policies with limited support within the parliamentary party.
In theory, all lines of accountability within the British system should run through Parliament. The lack of a public or parliamentary mandate in Truss’s case makes questions about her legitimacy all the more pressing.
Under these circumstances, the suggestion from die-hard Boris Johnson fans like Nadine Dorries – and it seems deplorable membership in the Conservative party – that the deposed prime minister could return to Downing Street seems less absurd.
The mini-budget and public control
It is also not difficult to see how the detachment of the leadership contest from parliament and the public has led to the shortcomings in the design and delivery of the mini-budget by the now former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng. Despite announcing the most comprehensive program of tax cuts in 50 years, the government used its control over parliamentary affairs to call it a “tax event”. In this way they hoped to remove Kwarteng from the control that would apply to a normal budget.
This process not only went against established constitutional conventions and procedures, but also played an important role in the negative market reaction. The imbalance between the extensive program of tax cuts and measures to mitigate the impact on public finances, along with the lack of independent analysis of the OBR, contributed to the significant dent in the UK’s economic credibility, further pushing the sell-off. grew in both sterling and government bond markets.
Following in Johnson’s Footsteps
The aversion to scrutiny and adherence to the conventions of cabinet and parliamentary government witnessed in this episode does not come out of the blue. As constitutional scholar Meg Russell and others have noted, Truss is only closely following the Johnson administration and a wider post-2016 trajectory in British politics.
Johnson sought to centralize power within central government structures, particularly in terms of exercising control over the network of special advisers over government departments. In addition, in the run-up to and after the Brexit vote, the executive launched a succession of attacks on parliament, decentralized and local government and other independent institutions. Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, mocked parliament as an obstacle to the outcome of the EU referendum.
In that sense, the stage was set for Truss and Kwarteng to bypass the OBR and the right cabinet and independent investigation. By the time of the mini-budget, sideways parliamentary committees and other public bodies had become a matter of course.
A lesson in the limits of government transgression
The fact that Truss was able to continue this trajectory, largely unchecked until the market’s devastating reaction to the mini-budget, demonstrates the weaknesses of the British constitution’s checks and balances. That a Prime Minister who has wreaked so much havoc and caused so much financial misery to the public remains in office speaks of the limitations of British democracy.
But the events in parliament leading up to the fracking vote may also offer a lesson in the limits of anti-democratic practices.
Initially, the government’s approach to fracking reform was markedly autocratic, with Commerce Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg trying to avoid scrutiny – both in terms of the safety of fracking itself and in terms of his approach to legislative changes.
Increasing pressure on the government led Truss to agree to provide a consent mechanism so that communities can voice their opinion on proposals for fracking in their area. But it was in the context of intense internal conflict within the Conservative Party over the issue, as well as such attempts to avoid consultations, that the Labor Party debate on the day of the opposition propose legislation to ban fracking.
Although Labor lost the vote – and probably expected to do so – by using this mechanism, they were able to corner government MPs. By turning the vote into a matter of confidence, the government kept its own MPs trapped between their constituency interests, the party line and their personal views. By forcing a vote on fracking, Labor therefore brought the conservative divisions out into the open for the voting public.
The ultimate consequences of this are still unfolding. But at least the scenes of chaos show that there are, if few, ways in which parliament can act against the anti-democratic maneuvers of the executive.