Boris Johnson’s first speech in office extolled the virtues of “habeas corpus and the rule of law”. But three years later, the Prime Minister is accused of trying to break international law twice in a week – on the Northern Ireland protocol and steel tariffs.
The latter led to the resignation of its ethics adviser, Lord Geidt.
It was also the week in which Johnson alarmed many in his own party, as well as the legal profession, by suggesting that the UK could withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. This was in response to a last-minute court decision that ended its plans to deport people seeking asylum in Rwanda.
Johnson’s critics say his approach of changing or breaking the rules when they don’t suit him has been his playbook throughout his political career, whether changing the standards system, revising the judicial review or by proroguing Parliament to avoid scrutiny. Nowhere is this more evident than his police fine for breaking the Covid lockdown laws he put in place, earning him the dubious distinction of being the first sitting UK Prime Minister to have personally broke the law.
“The government has confirmed that it will change the law so that it can ignore injunctions from the European Court of Justice recycling government action. The Independent Ethics Adviser cannot be replaced. The Judicial Review Act now allows courts to ignore the government’s past breaches of the law on JR. The trend is clear,” observed Charlie Falconer, the Labor peer and former justice secretary.
The government’s “cavalier” approach to the law under Johnson appears to be novel, said Jill Rutter, senior researcher at the Institute for Government and the UK in a Changing Europe.
Politicians railing against court rulings — especially European ones — for the benefit of the right-wing press has long been a recurring theme, she said. But she added that government experts felt the Johnson administration had gone further.
“We always say that we are interested in maintaining a rules-based international order, but I think what is new is the blatant and unabashed proposal around the Northern Ireland protocol and the taking commitments that we then denounce relatively soon after,” Rutter said. .
Rutter said Johnson appeared to subscribe to the “divine right of the popular will, viewing any restrictions on his way as illegitimate.”
Despite his drop in the polls, Johnson still seems to believe he’s in tune with the public. “If you think you’re in a Spock-like mind-meld with the British people, then everything else is illegitimate, and I think that’s kind of a post-Brexit Johnsonian mentality,” she said. “They seem less bothered by unbridled executive power than any other government I’ve seen.”
Johnson’s first run-ins with the law came at the start of his term as Prime Minister, when he tried to prorogue Parliament for five weeks at the height of the Brexit crisis – a move which was ruled illegal by the Court supreme.
With his leadership on the rocks, there is a sense that Johnson could once again escalate populist tensions with the law – particularly on issues relating to Europe – as part of a new ‘people versus establishment’ narrative. .
Sir Roger Gale, a Tory MP and one of the Prime Minister’s biggest critics from his own benches, said the breach of international law in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol was of particular concern.
“We are not violating international law. If we do, we have no right to criticize other countries when they break international law, and that would of course include the Russian Federation as well as anyone else,” he said. he declares. “We should sit down and talk to people in a civilized way… We can’t keep scoring political points on Europe. It’s like the PM is a one trick pony. All he has is Brexit and he wants to rub it at every opportunity because that’s his USP. We have to move on.
He said the approach of the European Court of Human Rights and Rwanda’s decision was also a “gut and knee-jerk response” and an example of “more bashing of Europe” when the Court is associated with the Council of Europe, not the European Union. Union.
Within the legal community, there have been wider concerns about the Conservative government’s approach to the law, including the failure of the Lord Chancellor and Attorney General to defend judges in the face of pressure and to abuse.
A highly critical report from all-party parliamentary group on democracy and the constitution discovered earlier this month that ministers had acted improperly by questioning the legitimacy of judges and threatening to reform the judiciary. They argued that this had given the impression that recent Supreme Court rulings favorable to the government may have been a response to political pressure.
Ellie Cumbo, head of public law at the Law Society, said the work of the Lord Chancellor, currently Dominic Raab, Deputy Prime Minister, was a ‘constitutional gray area’ in terms of how far he should go to defend the judicial.
She said whenever inflammatory language about judges, immigration rulings or judicial review was challenged, the government seemed to take an approach of “escalating these accusations and misleading rhetoric” rather than toning them down. .
“We don’t know where this is going to end,” she said.