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Alex Bell: UK constitution is unhinged when a single civil servant can hold so much power

Boris Johnson and claims of parties at No.10 have been scrutinized by Sue Gray.

Sue Gray. Never heard of two weeks ago. Now the most important person in the land.

It is famously unwritten but right now the UK constitution is also unhinged. As the threat of war looms in Ukraine and the nation struggles to recover from Covid, the future of our government depends on a civil servant.

She is not to blame for this bizarre turn. Told to do a job by her boss, she had little choice. That a random official should now hold such power is farcical.

Boris Johnson, like every one of us during lockdown, was occasionally baffled by the rules. His confusion seemed to coincide with birthdays, staff-leaving dos, Christmas and other ‘work’ events.

The rest of us felt great guilt for getting the rules wrong. It seemed like letting the nation down. Many of those caught were punished with fines. Most of us suffered by missing human contact, being kept away from dying relatives and being denied the normal process of mourning by restrictions on funerals.

Boris Johnson is either lying or declaring himself unfit for the role

Alone among the Britons stands Boris Johnson. Apparently unable to feel shame, as Prince Andrew is incapable of sweating, the PM would have the people believe he simply had no clue that frequent parties were breaking lockdown guidelines.

We suffered a kind of social and emotional blitz, while Downing Street kept the lights on to guide the bombers in. A morally indefensible act amounting to a kind of treason.

Johnson is lying or he has declared himself unfit for office.

He is asking us to believe that he set rules he knowingly broke, or he could not understand his own rules. For any other PM, in any other government, either would be grounds for resignation or removal.

Boris Johnson leaving his office at 10 Downing Street to attend the week’s Prime Minister Questions. Photo by Belinda Jiao/SOPA Images/Shutterstock

It turns out that in Britain, the constitution depends on the moral character of the PM. No morals, no precedence, no sanction.

This crisis has not just exposed the weakness of our government, but the failure of checks and balances. Where in all this ludicrous affair is the civil service?

Sad day when police must look through keyhole of No.10

The permanent secretary and head of the cabinet office is in charge of the entire civil service. Civil servants are bound to follow the law. No matter what a minister might ask, officials are personally responsible if their actions are illegal.

It seems the current Permanent Secretary Simon Case may have known about illegal parties at Downing Street but, according to Johnson at least, never advised the PM he was breaking the law. As such he is either incompetent or compromised.

Simon Case may have known about the alleged parties. Photo: Andrew Parsons/No10 Downing Street/PA Wire

Case has kept a low profile in the story to date, perhaps mindful of what happened to his predecessor Mark Sedwill, who was nudged out of office by Johnson for being too wet. Case’s anonymity smacks of weakness and cowardice. It lends weight to the idea that the Johnson administration has bullied the civil service into submission.

With double dealing on Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, the Foreign Office’s shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan and the useless response to Johnson’s behaviour in office, the civil service cones out very badly from the Boris years. Inept, bowed and second rate.

Which leaves the police and judiciary as the last resort, given the craven behaviour of parliament. The Met have been called in to investigate the parties at Downing Street. It is a sad day when the cop on the door must look through the keyhole.

The new reliance on the law to parse our politics sets a dangerous precedent. It puts the opposition several rungs below Met Commissioner Cressida Dick in our constitution.

Award-winning columnist Alex Bell has worked for news titles including the BBC, The Observer and The Herald, as well as writing a book about global water resources. He was also head of policy to Alex Salmond’s government