Politics. The law. You would assume the two go hand-in-hand, but recently the opposite is true. From holding lockdown parties to not wearing a seatbelt in a moving vehicle and posting a video of it online (definitively proving that Sunak does his own stunts), politicians simply cannot help but walk the precipice. So, what is being done about it?
First, let’s answer an easier question:
Do politicians even follow the same laws as us?
Dr Brian Christopher Jones, a law lecturer at the University of Sheffield specialising in public law, says, “The cabinet and members of the government are subject to the law, just like everybody else.
“There’s a strong rule of law culture in the UK in terms of holding people in power to account and I think we do that well, but there are instances where politicians have broken the law, and people would like to see them held to account more.”
Rule of law, here, just means that every citizen is subject to the law and that absolutely nobody is above it, contrary to the theory of, for example, divine right. So if a politician breaks the law (which is actually rarer than you may think), they will be held to the same scrutiny as us. In theory.
Not everyone agrees with this equal treatment, though. Some people think that politicians should have less rights!
How do we hold politicians to account?
Who doesn’t love the chaos of Prime Minister’s Questions, whether you’re catching the highlights or slogging through the whole charade, on a particularly busy week it’s like watching a world championship cock fight.
If you are unaware, PMQs is a weekly sitcom about an unwitting Prime Minister erringly answering the questions of MPs. Everyone gets one question besides the Leader of the Opposition, who gets six.
That said, most of the ‘questions’ are either snipes at the opposition – I’m waiting for a “Mr Speaker, when will the Prime Minister apologise to the good people of the House for that loathsome fit?” – or self-masturbatory claims of brilliance more romantic than Keats’ best hits: “Mr Speaker, I never was in love – yet the voice and the shape of the Prime Minister has haunted me these two days; O for a Life of Tory domination rather than of Thoughts!”
Supposedly, through the flames, there is still something of merit in PMQs. Dr Jones says, “It’s not something you see in other democracies. In the US, the President doesn’t have to go before Congress and answer questions about anything.
“I think there’s no doubt that PMQs led to Boris’ downfall.”
I may concede that, while most of the Q’s and A’s really are just lip service, sometimes something truly powerful is said. Take, for example, Sir Keir Starmer’s condemning remarks after Boris Johnson promoted Chris Pincher to Deputy Chief Whip despite knowing about misconduct complaints against him.
Starmer began by reading a chilling statement from the target of Pincher’s lechery: “He grabbed my arse and then slowly moved his hand down in front of my groin. I froze”, then contrasted this with Johnson’s alleged description of Pincher: “He’s handsy, that’s the problem; Pincher by name, pincher by nature”, before piling on to what remained of Johnson’s cabinet, “the charge of the lightweight brigade.”
Words like that, and images of Johnson slumped in shameful defeat, are incredible glimpses into the system doing its job holding power to account.
2: The Fourth Estate
This just means the media, whose job it is to spill the beans on what that rabble of Eton pedigree gets up to behind closed doors.
Johnson’s downfall, like a country-wide game of KerPlunk, was multifaceted, but Partygate has proved to be the spark that will not fan out. That scandal originated with journalist Pippa Crerar at the Mirror who simply had to wait for the right moment to publish the juiciest goss of the year. As a result, an investigation was launched which discovered Johnson had lied to Parliament (during beloved PMQs, no less!), landing both Johnson and Sunak a fine, and making him the first Prime Minister to have broken the law. All that because of a few news stories. Luckily, since that farce, we’ve only had competent politicians in charge…
3: The Constituents
The role of journalists in checking political power is somewhat obvious, less obvious is the role of turgid scum like you and I. Social pressure, conveyed through social media and letters to MPs, can have a significant effect on the shape of politics.
If a sitting MP is going to jail after breaking the law or if they have been suspended for 10 or more days, something called the Recall of MPs Act 2015 can be enacted. This, basically, results in a petition for the MP to lose their seat and for a by-election to be held in their constituency. Think of this as the ‘Alan Sugar’ Act, because if you get on the wrong end of it, you’re fired.
There are only two MPs who have suffered the Act’s wrath. Fiona Onasanya was kicked for lying to the police about speeding and subsequently perverting the course of justice, and Christopher Davies was kicked for providing fraudulent expenses claims. You would assume they would have figured out how to steal taxpayer money without getting caught by now.
But it is tricky to convince a politician they should go, even when the odds are stacked against them. Dr Jones says, “Boris won an 80-seat majority. Just because there were some hiccups, doesn’t mean you’re going to resign immediately.
“I don’t know if politicians always need to cave to public opinion until the legal process plays out, so that’s why the Recall Act is really innovative. It puts law breaking back into the citizenry’s hands.”
Overall, if politicians aren’t going to follow the law, at least we’ve got experience under our belt of shaming them for it. For now, we must remember that, through public humiliation and suitable punishment, this culture of corruption can be dismantled.