Bobby McDonagh: Johnson continues to show disdain for the rules

Prime minister personifies British hostility to international democratic norms

In William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies a group of young boys find themselves alone on a deserted island, cut off from adult supervision and the basic rules of society. Their chosen leader, Ralph, tries to hold things together against the dangerous impulsiveness of Jack. Recognising the need for some constraints on human behaviour, Ralph tries to persuade the other boys that “the rules are all we’ve got”. Jack’s response, “bollocks to the rules”, is the turning point in the story. The rejection of all rules tips the scales from civilisation towards savagery.

“Bollocks to the rules” also captures something of the philosophy, if philosophy is not too generous a word, of the current British prime minister. Boris Johnson’s recent imposition of a three-line whip on his MPs to overturn the recommendation of his own parliament’s committee on ethical standards was an egregious illustration of this. Although the vote was reversed the following day, this was not because Johnson had discovered a new-found respect for parliamentary rules. It simply reflected the scathing headlines in Tory-supporting newspapers. It is beyond question that he believes that a parliamentary majority can be used to override the most basic rules of parliamentary ethics.

Who will ever forget a British government minister [...] announcing formally, without shame or irony, that his government intended to break international law?

This episode, as serious British commentators are increasingly pointing out, was far from being an isolated incident. Since Johnson’s arrival in Downing Street, there has been a pattern of disregard for the normal rules of democratic behaviour. The proroguing of parliament in 2019 to avoid scrutiny of his Brexit policies was the most blatant example. However, there have been numerous other instances in which Johnson’s attitude to rules has been one of disdain. To cite just a few examples among many: his non-acceptance of the conclusion of the government’s official adviser on ethical standards that the home secretary, Priti Patel, had breached the ministerial code, thus forcing the adviser rather than Patel to resign; his plans to weaken the role of the independent Electoral Commission; and the appointment of a Tory donor to the House of Lords against the recommendation of the official vetting committee. Recently, his justice secretary indicated that consideration is being given to a law to permit the government to overrule court judgments. The Polish government looks wimpish by comparison.

Johnson’s decision earlier this month to walk around a hospital without a face mask, despite being requested to wear one, precisely when the cameras were on him, sent a deliberate message about a disregard for rules.


Unfortunately, especially for the UK’s neighbours, casual disrespect for the rules is not limited to domestic politics. Who will ever forget a British government minister, on the floor of what used to be considered the “mother of parliaments”, announcing formally, without shame or irony, that his government intended to break international law? In layman’s language, the message was “Bollocks to international rules”. It is hardly surprising, although admirable, that the most senior British law officer resigned as a matter of principle.

The zealots of Brexit[...] were uncomfortable even with European legislation that the UK itself had strongly argued for

For some time now, the EU has been confronted by Johnson and his Brexit secretary, David Frost, trying every trick in the book to renege on the proper implementation of the Brexit Northern Ireland protocol which they shaped, negotiated, agreed, ratified in parliament and trumpeted publicly. This time around, Johnson will not make the mistake of announcing publicly an intention to break international law. On the contrary, several lawyers have apparently been approached with a view to constructing a legal justification if London decides to trigger article 16, a justification that would, naturally, be forcefully challenged by lawyers for the EU.

What is not in doubt, however, is that, from the outset, Johnson and Frost have sought neither to defend honestly nor implement in good faith a sensitive, balanced, hard-won, binding international agreement. The recent softening of Frost’s tone is welcome and may hint at a possible breakthrough. However, it reflects a growing realisation that his actions would have consequences, rather than any relinquishing of the comfort blanket of his threat to use article 16.

In truth, the hostility to international rules goes back to Brexit itself. For more than 50 years, British politicians and officials had been highly successful, probably uniquely so among EU member states, in shaping the European Union’s rules – its treaties, laws and policy direction. However, for the zealots of Brexit that was never enough. They were uncomfortable even with European legislation that the UK itself had strongly argued for, with EU policies on which Britain had led the way, and with rules that were manifestly to Britain’s advantage.

In fact, the problem probably goes much further back. One of Johnson’s teachers at Eton famously remarked in a school report: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”

Bobby McDonagh is a former ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome