Scroungers, lefty lawyers... the Tories duck scrutiny by inventing enemies | Nick Cohen

Abiding by judicial oversight is alien to a government that acts as if it’s above the law

You cannot say anything coherent without generalising, and so, and to generalise, the British will lose their rights to challenge an over-mighty and underwhelming state because they hate foreigners more than they love political accountability.

The Johnson administration knows that as long as it portrays asylum seekers as cheats arriving in the UK illegally and their solicitors as activist “lefty lawyers”, tricking the trusting public into allowing scrounging aliens to remain on our island, it can end scrutiny of its abuses of power.

Stopping accountability is, after all, its prime purpose. Journalists and academics write so much about populists you can be forgiven for thinking they are complicated men. They could not be simpler. The answer to the question what do populists want is that they want power: to win it, maintain it and prohibit opposition to it.

Boris Johnson’s government ducks every hard issue from the abysmal state of social care to declining productivity. Instead, it proposes to put scrutiny of its actions beyond the reach of the courts by restricting judicial review of unlawful state decisions.

Ministers will sell secrecy as a defence against today’s sly lefty lawyers and forget to add that judicial review has existed for 400 years. I have a picture of Conservative voters cheering Priti Patel and Johnson on as they bash asylum seekers only to discover, too late, that the government has abolished their right to challenge plans to drive a road through the fields next to their home or build houses on their village green.

Or indeed challenge any unlawful government decision. With a typically indolent concern for the truth, the justice secretary, Robert Buckland, maintained that the government’s review of the courts had found a “worrying” trend of judges moving beyond their rightful sphere. In truth, the review panel, chaired by former Conservative minister Lord Faulks, no less, found no “overall trend that you could extract” and recommended only minor changes. Buckland swore to uphold the law when he took office and then sanctioned Johnson’s plan to break international law during the Brexit crisis. You can expect nothing better from him.

The dismissal of independent advice, however, is as characteristic of the populist when the will to power is upon him as the contempt for truth. Sir Alex Allan, Johnson’s ethics adviser, resigned after he found evidence that Patel bullied civil servants and Johnson decided to defend her rather than basic standards. Johnson ignored warnings from doctors and epidemiologists about the dangers of releasing lockdown too early and condemned thousands to needless deaths. When an appointments panel refused to make Paul Dacre chair of Ofcom, because a former editor of the Mail was unlikely to defend impartial broadcasting, Johnson would not accept its decision. He created a new interview panel and told it to try again. Last week, another independent adviser, Sir Kevan Collins, went. He resigned because his recommendations to save the education of Covid-disrupted pupils were replaced by Rishi Sunak’s “half-hearted approach [that] risks failing hundreds of thousands”.

Populism wants a good press rather than good government. Johnson will calculate that hurting pupils won’t hurt the Conservative party, whose support is dominated by pensioners without school-age children. He can count on the rightwing press and the instinctive beliefs of Tory voters to hold that asylum seekers are criminals because they arrived illegally and forget how hard it is for genuine victims of persecution to travel to Britain legally.

For all that, I still do not see how anyone apart from sociopaths can look at the high court’s judicial review of conditions in the Napier barracks on the Kent coast last week and conclude that ministers can be safely left to govern in darkness.

The Home Office put 414 asylum seekers, who had committed no crime, into the abandoned camp. It left them in cramped, badly ventilated dormitories rather than house them in the hotels the pandemic had emptied. Decent accommodation might have produced headlines about scroungers living in luxury and that would never do. There was a “very clear steer to eliminate the use of hotels for contingency accommodation”, said Mr Justice Linden as he noted the political imperative to keep the tabloids happy. “Home Office staff were rarely present, which led to dangerous shortcomings.”

Although they were not meant to be prisoners, the men were locked in a camp surrounded by barbed wire and patrolled by security guards. There was one serious fire, the site was riddled with plywood and asbestos, while an inevitable Covid outbreak saw nearly 200 inmates and staff go down.

Johnson wants to stop judges examining such horrors for many reasons. He does not want to pay compensation to victims, as the judge’s ruling that detention at the Napier barracks was unlawful may force him to do. He does not want to allow the courts or anyone else to force ministers and civil servants to work hard and do their duty. And he is very keen on keeping the Conservative-voting public in a politically useful state of ignorance.

But as so often, the simplest explanation is the best. As a triumphant leader with an unassailable majority and divided opposition, Johnson does not believe anyone should hold him to account.

The Napier barracks are named after Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853). He was a hero of the Napoleonic wars, whose horse was shot from underneath him twice in the Peninsula campaign. He was also a surprisingly liberal general by 19th-century standards. In the late 1830s, he commanded 6,000 troops in the north of England with orders to crush the Chartist movement. Far from regarding the campaign to democratise Britain as a threat, however, Napier sympathised with the Chartist demand for one man, one vote, and condemned the poverty endured by the new working class. If there was trouble, he said, “Tory injustice and Whig imbecility” were its root causes. Plus ça change.

In everything he does, from trying to silence the courts to rigging broadcasting regulation, Johnson shows that he wants to hide the facts and escape the consequences of his own injustice and imbecility.

• Nick Cohen is an Observer columnist


Nick Cohen

The GuardianTramp

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