To seek historical parallels between circumstances in different periods is always to steer a potentially treacherous course, even when talking about events in the same institution. However, it strikes me that Boris Johnson’s government would do well to consider the decision taken by William Pitt the Younger’s ministry in the first few months of its existence.
In 1784 Pitt’s was a government with no majority in the Commons pursuing a constitutionally dubious course – in this case, the perpetuation of its own existence, which relied on the continued support of George III and through him its ability to exercise the authority of the executive. It dealt with its position not by avoiding the Commons, but by repeatedly meeting parliament in the face of opposition. It only prorogued parliament – in this case, in advance of a general election – once it had won a majority on a vote in the existing house.
In 2019 Boris Johnson’s government pursuing a constitutionally contentious course evades debates on its central policy by proroguing parliament for five weeks in the face of a sceptical Commons, insisting that other matters are more important than the evident crisis of the day and that MPs are silly or malign in wanting to question its conduct on that issue. Where Pitt sought to win friends by demonstrating his probity and building support in parliament, Johnson explains his prorogation in a pooled news video clip with an expression which reminds one of a schoolboy enjoying his own disingenuous denials of obvious crimes, and then avoids the public and parliamentarians alike. His entourage who claim (with varying degrees of credibility) the exclusivity of self-professed true believers in a creed which argues that it has been tested enough. In contrast Pitt tried to win allies from almost all sides, in a fashion not seen in Johnson or his predecessor Theresa May. The only feature of consequence Pitt and Johnson share is that both have the advantage of being the sitting ministry with the influence this brings, although that influence was much more obvious and direct on the 1784 election than it would be in a potential 2019 contest. Otherwise, the contrast seems clear.
In its conduct these Conservative ministers are a long way from being, as their predecessors two hundred years ago boasted, ‘the friends of Mr Pitt’. This administration’s decision to make use of constitutional machinery to avoid awkward questions about its policy and conduct is dishonorable and it deserves to be brought down. It is, however, up to its opponents that they also seek to build sufficiently strong relationships with each other and make a case for the limitation of the executive in the Commons more clearly and engagingly than Charles James Fox and his colleagues did against Pitt, or otherwise our marginals – the nearest equivalent to the open constituencies of 1784 where genuine contest was possible – might fall to Johnson in an election just as they did to Pitt.
I last wrote about the early months of Pitt’s government in an article on the ‘Mince-pie ministry’ for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online in May 2008, and historical context to this post can be found there.