Pyrotechnics and PR

Our Government is happily consigning our democracy to the bonfire - and it only ever backtracks when it realises it has gone too far. 

The Government has now backpedalled on its proposals to overthrow the Commons standards commissioner to give Owen Paterson a chance to appeal his suspension for breaching parliamentary lobbying rules.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, has claimed that an amendment which would trigger a review and overhaul of the process for investigating parliamentary behaviour (and which Conservative MPs were whipped to vote for) wrongly conflated the need to review the standards commissioner with the individual case of Owen Paterson. After rallying round Paterson and tearing into his detractors, it now seems that the Government has chosen to feed him to the lions (perhaps this was also a means of punishing Paterson for his bullish media round on the morning after the vote). 

It is clear that the Government recognises that the amendment which proposed to ignore the standards watchdog and protect Paterson went down like a cup of cold sick with a highly energised and outraged public. It recognises that it went too far and would lose support as a result - so the Government accordingly changed its tune. 

But one day, once it has dismantled our democratic institutions, it won’t be possible for this Government to go too far - because there will be no-one to hold it to account.

We talk about the Government and its U-turns, and while these may be a sign of Government ineptitude, they also expose a Government strategy of testing the limits of authoritarian rule. Our Government tries to see what it can get away with and then modifies its behaviour when it faces public opprobrium. 

This isn’t the first time it has done this. The Government has U-turned on plenty of other issues - and when you look closely at these issues, you can see that its U-turns aren’t dictated by common sense or compassion, but by a cynical comms strategy. 

What else has the Government U-turned on to spin things its way?

  • The NHS surcharge is a cost that is paid by workers from overseas to allow them to use the NHS. Last year, after so many overseas workers helped the NHS through the pandemic, Boris Johnson initially refused to exempt migrant NHS workers from the surcharge. Against a backdrop of clapping for our carers, there was huge discomfort amongst Conservative backbenchers at the continuation of the surcharge - especially because it did not go down well amongst constituents. As the level of backlash became apparent, Johnson reversed the decision and dropped the surcharge for NHS workers from overseas.   
  • A particularly memorable U-turn has to be the Government’s decision to extend free school meals over the school holidays last June. A campaign led by the footballer Marcus Rashford highlighted the plight of those experiencing food insecurity and gained huge public support. The Government had to stop demonising poorer families after it realised that public support aligned with Rashford’s arguments.  
  • You may well remember the fiasco with exam results in summer 2020, where a failed algorithm severely downgraded many students’ expected results after they were unable to sit exams due to the pandemic. Initially, the Government stuck by the results that this algorithm had generated, until the public outcry was so great that the Government agreed students should instead be awarded their predicted grades. 
  • As the HGV driver shortage got worse, people were increasingly affected by supply chain disruptions. From empty shelves to rising prices, ordinary people began to feel the strain of a policy towards HGV drivers that had failed to future-proof the industry and take into account the negative impacts of Brexit on driver recruitment. Initially, the Government was stubborn on this front, refusing to acknowledge why the crisis was spiralling out of control. But as people became increasingly anxious and angry about the disruption, the Government U-turned once more and made temporary visas available to HGV drivers from the EU.  
  • Recently, the Government found its policy proposal which would have allowed water companies to continue dumping raw sewage in our rivers met with a huge backlash. As a result of sustained campaigning and public interest, the Government reversed its decision and instead put forward an amendment which would have made it incumbent upon water companies to reduce their dumping of raw sewage. 

The U-turns listed above resulted in some important changes that ultimately were of benefit to society at large. But if the Government doesn’t fear being voted out because it has rigged the system in its favour, then it will be less inclined to be led by the public when it comes to making decisions for the future of this country. 

That is the sort of future this Government would like to see. From reducing parliamentary scrutiny by overhauling the standards commissioner (this overhaul will certainly still happen, it just won’t apply to Paterson) to ignoring rulings that indicate when Government ministers have broken the ministerial code - this Government is one that doesn’t want to be accountable. 

Our campaigns on the Elections Bill and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill are centred around this Government’s attempts to undermine democracy. Through the Elections Bill, the Government plans to reduce the powers of the Electoral Commission to regulate elections activity by making the commission accountable to the Government and removing its powers to bring prosecutions. Through the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government will enable the Home Secretary to criminalise types of protest at will. 

The Government will do whatever it can get away with - and increasingly it will try to enact laws that allow it to get away with more. It is only with public outcry that we can stop this Government from rewriting the rules to suit itself. 

To help us show the Government that we know and oppose what it is trying to do, get involved in our Better Democracy campaign today by heading to our site.