Part of the mythology surrounding Boris Johnson is the idea that his politics are, at heart, liberal. The prime minister’s record as mayor of London, where he was careful not to offend the cosmopolitan culture of the capital, is held up by moderate Tories as the guide to their leader’s true instincts. It is also said that his reluctance to impose anti-Covid measures derives from principled aversion to state control over the individual.
In truth, Mr Johnson is a libertine, believing in his own freedom to do as he pleases. That only superficially resembles concern for the rights that protect society against authoritarian government. If the prime minister were sincerely interested in liberty, his party would not this week have given Commons assent to a law that rewrites the terms on which citizens can peacefully protest against the government.
The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill (now with the Lords) would create a new statutory offence of causing a “public nuisance”, defined so broadly that “serious annoyance” is listed alongside causing harm or death. Police would enjoy almost limitless licence to act against public gatherings deemed inconvenient.
Also this week, Priti Patel, the home secretary, unveiled the nationality and borders bill, with the ostensible purpose of fixing a “broken asylum system”. In liberal hands, that ambition would mean reforming cruel practices of detention that treat vulnerable refugees as hardened criminals. Instead, Ms Patel risks intensifying that approach with plans to process asylum seekers offshore, conflating the legal status of the method by which a migrant reaches Britain with the legitimacy of their claim to sanctuary, and making legal entry harder.
The Home Office already has power over Britain’s borders, all the more so since the end of free movement from the EU. A new crackdown speaks not of any new threat but of a political impulse to revisit the greatest hits of the Brexit campaign, sustaining and aggravating anti-immigrant sentiment for political expediency.
This is the populist playbook and it has little connection to the ideals of liberty and traditions of British democracy that feature so heavily in the pompous pronouncements of Tory MPs when the topic is business regulations or public health. If those same MPs cared about the vitality of democracy they would not go along with government plans to require photo ID in polling booths on the specious claim that fraud is a systemic problem. Creating administrative barriers that could then suppress voter turnout is the more plausible government motive. There has been some disquiet expressed on Conservative benches on that point, but not sufficient to deter ministers from introducing the elections bill to parliament this week.
In a party wedded to democratic accountability there might also be more objection to a bill that proposes to weaken the Electoral Commission, removing its power to prosecute law-breaking. Some Tory MPs want the independent watchdog scrapped. It is a perverse fixation but not mysterious. This is a vendetta. The commission has launched an investigation into controversial financing of Mr Johnson’s refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, and previously fined Vote Leave, the pro-Brexit campaign, for breaking spending limits during the 2016 referendum.
Any illusion that Mr Johnson harbours liberal instincts was shattered by his prorogation of parliament in 2019, later ruled unlawful by the supreme court. The prime minister certainly has a fondness for liberty when it is defined as the absence of constraint on his whims. When confronted with such obstacles, he slides without difficulty into an authoritarian mode. That is the more consistent character of his government, revealed in a pattern of legislation driven by no ethos nobler than the appetite for power without accountability.