Members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet failed to speak up while the prime minister spent years damaging democracy at home and the UK’s reputation abroad, John Major has told MPs.
The former prime minister issued a warning to a committee that democracy “is not inevitable” and can be undone “step by step, action by action, falsehood by falsehood”.
“It needs to be protected at all times and it seems to me that if our law and our accepted conventions are ignored then we are on a very slippery slope that ends with pulling our constitution into shreds,” said Major, who said democracy was “in retreat” elsewhere in the world and should not be taken for granted in the UK.
He added: “What has been done in the last three years has damaged our country at home and overseas, and I think has damaged the reputation of parliament as well.
“The blame for these lapses must lie principally, but not only, with the prime minister. But many in his cabinet are culpable too and so are those outside the cabinet who cheered him on.”
In remarks that are likely to be taken as pointed criticism of senior Tories, including some of the current hopefuls in his party’s leadership race, he added: “They were silent when they should have spoken out and spoke out only when their silence became self damaging.”
Earlier, he said that “the whole country” knew that the government had broken the law in what he described as a “litany” of ways: unlawfully trying to prorogue parliament, ignoring a nationwide lockdown by breaking its own laws in Downing Street and trying change laws to “protect one of their own”. This was not an exclusive list, he added.
Major was appearing before the public administration and constitutional affairs select committee (PACAC), which was taking evidence on propriety in governance.
During the same appearance, the former prime minister said the cabinet secretary’s claim that he was “shocked” by the Sue Gray report “pushes the elastic a long way”.
At an earlier meeting of the PACAC, Simon Case had said he was “shocked” when he read Gray’s report on the Partygate scandal.
Asked on Tuesday whether this was credible, Major said: “I think it pushes the elastic a long way.”
He added: “It’s quite difficult to accept that there were as many things happening in lockdown as the Sue Gray report set out with people being utterly unaware that that was the case.”
The former prime minister said such unawareness would have constituted “a remarkable disinterest in one’s working habitat”.
He also told PACAC the government should show MPs “unexpurgated” advice from the attorney general on the legality of the Northern Ireland protocol bill.
Asked how parliament should deal with the bill, he said: “Parliament ought to see, unexpurgated, the advice from the law officers to whether or not it does break the law at home or internationally, and if it doesn’t then it’s a matter for parliament.
“If it does break the law, then it is a bill that ought not to be laid before parliament.”