No one, but no one, is above the law. It's a simple concept, but given the recent behaviour of the Tories and their mates, you’d be forgiven for thinking they are.
Boris Johnson’s disregard for the law began swiftly, when his government unlawfully prorogued Parliament last year. The Supreme Court determined that the government did not have the power to suspend parliament if that had the effect of “preventing or frustrating without reasonable justification” Parliament’s ability to carry out its functions and that the “effect on the fundamentals of our democracy was extreme”.
More recently, housing minister Robert Jenrick admitted to deliberately helping a Tory donor avoid paying millions in tax, by reversing a decision of his own department and expediting the progress of a housing development. The donor was property developer Richard Desmond, who reportedly had had the good sense to sit next to Jenrick and lobby him at a dinner. The tax would have gone to Tower Hamlets Council, one of the country’s most deprived areas.
Then there was the infamous Cummings affair. At the height of lockdown, with millions in this country doing their bit to abide by uncomfortable but necessary restrictions on their liberty, the prime minister’s right-hand-man drove to County Durham with Covid-19 symptoms. He then told us that a subsequent drive to Barnard Castle was to test his eyesight and denied breaking lockdown rules.
Now matters have taken a more sinister turn.
The government has brazenly admitted in the House of Commons that their plan – to act contrary to a deal that had formed the basis of their general election campaign – is an illegal one. But they are going ahead with it anyway.
This goes hand in hand with Home Office attacks on the work of “activist lawyers”: i.e., lawyers who point out on their clients’ behalf when the government has broken the law.
These points feed into an increasingly persuasive attack line for Labour: “one rule for them, another for everyone else”. Recent research has shown that 84 per cent of Labour to Tory switchers at the 2019 general election believe that “there is one rule for the rich and one rule for the poor”. 73 per cent of the broader public agree. A new campaign organisation has recently been launched aiming to persuade Lab-Tory switchers to come back into the fold. Its name: “One Rule For Them”.
The Tories have always felt themselves on solid ground when it comes to law and order.
They like to be seen as a party of “zero tolerance” when it comes to rule breaking. But the recent perception of Tory lawlessness presents an opportunity to mould the narrative for Labour: it’s only zero tolerance when you and people like you break the law, not them and people like them.
The current government’s lack of respect for the institutions of the law and the law itself is something that older generations of Tories would despise. The Bristol MP Darren Jones was clearly right when he said that Margaret Thatcher would have had no time for the government’s current tack: she once said that “in order to be considered truly free, countries must also have a deep love of liberty and an abiding respect for the rule of law”.
What is so troubling about this is that on the one hand, Britain is projecting itself on the international stage as a country that does not respect the rule of law or keep its word when it signs a deal. “How do you walk away from an international agreement?” Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives asked rhetorically. “How do you trust that?”
On the other hand, the upshot is darker still.
Johnson and Cummings seem to have calculated that the sanctity of Brexit will trump, in the minds of Red Wall and other leave-voting supporters, the very idea of rules-based government.
The Tories are gambling there is nothing – not even the law – that cannot be burned in the name of Brexit. So let’s hope they’re wrong, and hold them to account at every turn.
Grahame Anderson is an equalities and employment barrister. He is chair of the Society of Labour lawyers employment group.
Follow him on Twitter at @GrahameAnders.