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Opinion

Public confidence in politics has never been so low. Will anyone take responsibility?

If our political leaders are coming up short, it’s fellow MPS who must hold them to account. But will they?

In recent weeks, as the Russian onslaught on Ukraine has shown little sign of abating, UK cabinet ministers have lined up to remind the British public that wartime is no time to depose a leader.

And while there is certainly an argument for continuity in political direction during a major international crisis, these pre-emptive defensive briefings – designed to play down the possible consequences for the prime minister of the Metropolitan police and Sue Gray inquiries into the ‘partygate’ scandal – risk looking to the public like a naked attempt to extract political capital from a horrendous human tragedy.

Now, in the light of the fines imposed by the police on Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak, Conservative politicians’ efforts to play down the seriousness of the behaviour of politicians and civil servants in Whitehall during the pandemic risk reinforcing the public perception that UK politicians believe there is one rule for them and another for the rest of us.

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The exceptionalism of UK politicians is not a one-off issue for our politics but – as I argue in my new book – a longstanding problem undermining public trust in our democracy.

Numerous scandals – from MPs expenses, to #MeToo to the Owen Paterson debacle of 2021 – illustrate the attitude of too many politicians that the laws passed by parliament should not apply to them. This distances voters from parliamentarians, undermines the reputation of parliament as an institution and reduces the public’s inclination to follow the rules the government has decided should apply. 

These are serious problems at the best of times but during the pandemic, waning trust in politicians who had to ask the public to make considerable personal sacrifices was particularly worrying. 

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Governments often seek to sideline parliament’s role in passing laws and scrutinising their behaviour. This was a notable feature of the Brexit years – a strategy adopted by both Theresa May and Boris Johnson who sought to minimise what they saw as parliamentary interference their efforts to shape the nature of the UK’s exit from the EU. Johnson even went so far as to shut down Parliament for five weeks to prevent it meddling with his plans, before the Supreme Court ruled his lengthy prorogation unlawful. 

The House of Commons remains descriptively unrepresentative of the British public on numerous axes of diversity. Complex and impenetrable rules shape Parliament’s work; the difficulty for the public, journalists and even some MPs of even understanding what is going on is fundamentally undemocratic. 

Ultimately MPs must take responsibility for addressing these threats to public confidence in the House of Commons themselves, rather than shrugging their shoulders at news of the latest decline in public trust in parliament. Individual political decisions, like the ones about the future of the prime minister and chancellor now facing Conservative MPs, are what ultimately shape public confidence in our political system. 

Dr Hannah White OBE is deputy director of the Institute for Government 

Held in Contempt: what’s wrong with the House of Commons? By Dr Hannah White OBE is out 19 April (Manchester University Press)

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