“Tuesday 12th April, 2022 will be forever remembered as a dark, bleak day for British public and political life. It is the day that Boris Johnson became the great debaser in modern times of decency […] and of our constitutional conventions, our very system of government.”
That is an entry from Peter Hennessy’s personal diary, which he read out on Radio 4 on their Sunday morning ‘Broadcasting House’ programme. You could be forgiven for thinking that he must be an implacable opponent of Johnson, perhaps one of those lefty human rights lawyers that the prime minister hates so much. But nothing could be further from the truth. As the presenter Paddy O’Donnell, noted, Hennessy is by no means Johnson’s natural foe.
Hennessy. It’s a fine name, isn’t it? It conjures up images of smooth spirits sipped from cut glass tumblers that glint in the lamplight. Of evenings spent in leather armchairs, gently polished by the application of too many well-tailored trouser seats to count. Of civility, respectability and establishment.
Hennessy: nobody’s idea of a swivel-eyed activist
And that image serves us well. Lord Hennessy is nobody’s idea of a swivel-eyed activist. The 75-year-old professor is our foremost constitutional scholar. He’s a privately educated alumnus of the University of Cambridge and a fellow of the British Academy. He sits in the House of Lords as a non-political peer. It’s almost as if the whole point of him is to be politically impartial. It’s impossible to imagine that he’s anything other than civilised and respectable at all times.
Hennessy says of himself, “I don’t like ranting, I don’t like being ranted at and I’m not too keen on doing it myself”. Which is why hearing him read out his excoriating diary entry is as shocking as if he’d walked up to Johnson and spat in his face.
According to Hennessy, we are in the most severe constitutional crisis involving a prime minister that he can remember. On 12 April, Johnson received a fixed penalty notice from the Metropolitan Police, because of his breach of lockdown laws. That evening at Chequers, the prime minister read out a statement clarifying that he had paid the fine but would not be resigning. Hennessy’s diary entry continues:
“If there were cocks on the Chequers estate, where all this was going on, they would have crowed at their very loudest at this point, as the prime minister sealed his place in British history as the first law-breaker to have occupied the premiership, an office he has sullied like no other, turning it into an adventure playground for one man’s narcissistic vanity.
“Boris Johnson has broken the law, misled parliament and has, in effect, shredded the ministerial code which is a crucial part of the spinal cord of the constitution […] the great weakness of the system is that the prime minister, the wrong’un-in-Chief, is the guardian of the code and with it the supposed protector of accountability and decency.”
Johnson degrades our institutions
O’Donnell tried a rather sophisticated argument, that it is a political decision whether or not Johnson resigns. Johnson is the ultimate arbiter of the ministerial code. If he judges that he need not resign, then that judgement is perfectly valid within the code.
Hennessy was having none of it.
He pointed out that Johnson does not own the institutions of state, he only serves at their head for a limited time. His disregard for the ministerial code is not merely political. It sweeps aside all the conventions on which the decency and probity of our system rests. It’s an assault on the rule of law and on the decent state of mind which keeps our society open and clean. It degrades those institutions which are not his to tarnish.
If he’s not prepared to do the decent thing, why should anybody else? The whole decency of our public life turns on this question.
One bloody cake
Despite being someone who doesn’t rant, Hennessy was becoming audibly emotional. O’Donnell described him as heart-broken. And indeed, at one point he despaired, “…one bloody cake and one bloody party in ten minutes. Paddy, what has become of us?”
Hennessy would like to see prime ministers swear an oath to parliament, the way that the Lord Chancellor already does. An oath to uphold the constitution, to be the proper guardian of the ministerial code. He feels that decencies and conventions are not enough to constrain the ego that is currently filling Number 10. It is hard to disagree with him.
In his diary, he comes to a grim conclusion:
“The Queen’s first minister is now beyond doubt a rogue prime minister, unworthy of her, her parliament, her people and her kingdom. I cannot remember a day when I have been more fearful for the wellbeing of the constitution.”