Boris Johnson is trashing Britain's reputation. Labour cannot stand by | Jonathan Freedland


Call it Barnard Castle-ism. Dominic Cummings’ belief that inconvenient rules can be broken has become the animating creed of this government. Except now it’s articulated even more brazenly than Boris Johnson’s evil not-quite-genius ever dared. After all, Barnard Castle only entered the language as a byword for a laughably convoluted excuse because Cummings didn’t want to admit he had violated the lockdown. This week the cabinet minister Brandon Lewis showed no such reticence. “Yes, this does break international law,” Lewis told the House of Commons, speaking of the government’s new internal market bill; but only, he said, adding the feeblest of qualifiers, “in a very specific and limited way”.

Since then, British politics has been consumed with an argument you would have thought didn’t need to be made: the case for the rule of law. It’s so fundamental, we’re not used to spelling it out, but here goes. The alternative to the rule of law is the law of the jungle. If individuals or countries can pick and choose which rules they keep and which rules they break, that benefits the strong and powerful but leaves everyone else vulnerable. Safety comes only when the law applies as much to the lion as the lamb.

More directly, a Britain that declares its willingness to break international treaties – including one it signed only a few months ago – announces itself as a rogue state, by definition. As the former Tory leader Michael Howard argued, such a country will never again be able to scold, say, Iran if it breaks its nuclear promises, or China when it reneges on its commitments to Hong Kong. We will have amputated the finger we like to wag in the face of others.

If all that sounds too high-minded, let’s put it in terms that might register with even the most devoted Brexiter. There’s no “global Britain” if Britain is known as the country that breaks its word. All those sparkling new trade deals that will supposedly compensate for losing our place in the world’s largest, freest trading bloc will evaporate as potential partners back away from a nation that admits to defaulting on its obligations.

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Nancy Pelosi, who as US House speaker heads the body that would have to ratify any US-UK trade agreement, said as much on Thursday: if Britain unpicks the Irish border accord, there’ll be no trade deal with the US. Baffled, she asked: “How can they walk away from an international agreement? How do you trust that?”

Far from heeding the warnings of some of our closest allies, the government is rushing ever faster into the abyss. It plans to fast-track its law-breaking bill, bringing it to the Commons on Monday. And yet we can hardly consider ourselves surprised. This is a government that introduced itself to the nation by breaking the law with its “prorogation” manoeuvre a year ago, illegally suspending parliament when that body got in its way.

Ever since, it has set about removing any person or institution that might act as a check or balance on its power, hacking away at the foundation stones on which our democracy rests. Johnson purged his benches of dissenting MPs and now, more alarmingly, is purging the upper reaches of what should be an impartial civil service. Six senior Whitehall officials have gone this year, the latest being the head of the government’s legal department, who resigned rather than serve a government that acts illegally.

Johnson and Cummings have picked a new cabinet secretary, one apparently willing to do their bidding: on Thursday he issued a statement reassuring civil servants that they’re not breaking their code by serving a government that breaks the law. At the start of this month, Johnson broke a long summer spell of invisibility to attack the BBC over the confected Rule, Britannia! row, because a trusted national broadcaster is yet another pillar of the democratic architecture that our prime minister and his outsourced brain regard as constraining their power.

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Naturally, when the government takes a mallet to any of these pillars it insists it’s serving the “will of the people”. But the attempt to rewrite the withdrawal agreement exposes the smirking emptiness of that slogan, because it confirms that Johnson and his ministers hold the people – including their own voters – in contempt. The electorate approved that agreement in the December election, having been told it was not only “great”, “fantastic” and “wonderful” but done, dusted and oven-ready. Tinkering it with now is to laugh in their faces.

Who, then, will stand up to Johnson? It’s been heartening to see former Tory leaders line up to condemn their successor, though it’s long overdue. They should have seen from the start that Brexit was always at odds with the principles claimed by traditional Toryism. The party that once professed to prefer proven institutions to wild ideological schemes chose to ditch an established, effective body in pursuit of an abstract dream of absolute sovereignty. The party of unionism agreed to put a border down the Irish Sea. Regretting that now, the party of law and order breaks the law.

But this week confirms that Brexit stands at odds not only with conservatism, but with the doctrine plenty of Tory MPs would regard as more precious: Thatcherism. For Margaret Thatcher regarded the rule of law as a sacred British value. What’s more, Cummings is driven by his desire to escape EU rules barring state aid, so that the government can start subsidising favoured businesses. Such state subsidy was anathema to Thatcher.

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“Cummings is on his way to destroying everything Tories hold dear,” says one MP and former minister, who tells me he has a speech resigning the Tory whip written and ready in his top drawer. He can’t bear what he sees as Cummings’ burn-it-down revolutionary anarchism: “We didn’t see him coming because he’s coming from the right.” He says his fellow moderates are waiting for an imagined final battle to confront Cummings and his boss. “But history shows there isn’t one final battle. It’s a series of capitulations.”

In his view, Cummings knows he won’t be able to deliver materially for the northern “red wall” seats the party won from Labour last year, but reckons the Tories can retain their 2019 coalition by fuelling a constant culture war, attacking liberal institutions, and casting Labour’s Keir Starmer as Captain Woke. Seen like that, Starmer was right this week to avoid Johnson’s trap and say nothing about the law-breaking admission. Don’t sound like a remainer lawyer; leave it to others; stick to Covid.

I’m sure those are smart tactics; I get it. But sometimes the moment demands more. When a government declares that the rule of law is no longer absolute, the foundations of democratic life begin to tremble. There is a way to make the case without sounding like an Islington QC. You can quote Thatcher, or channel the patriotic Labourism of Clement Attlee, insisting that Britain’s word must mean something in the world. However you choose to say it, it needs to be said. Too much is at stake to stay silent.





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