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17 January 2022

Martin Fletcher

The Conservative Party should never be forgiven for enabling Boris Johnson’s ascent

Today’s Tories have forfeited any right to be seen as the party of law and order and moral rectitude.

Imagine if today, instead of his usual daily photo-op in some hermetically sealed setting far from the ordinary people whom he professes to champion, Boris Johnson sought to walk down the main street of a British town. He would be driven away by howls of derision.

Or if the North Shropshire by-election was held now instead of last month. The Tories would be lucky to beat the Monster Raving Loony Party.

Johnson is finished. He is, to coin a phrase, a dead man walking. The spell has finally been broken. The teflon has peeled off. “Partygate” has exposed him for the lying, dissembling, cowardly charlatan he is. He seeks to blame everyone but himself, but his synthetic anger and contrition fools nobody. 

Each successive day brings fresh revelations of the Prime Minister’s moral turpitude and damning front pages in almost every paper. His approval ratings are rock bottom. His parliamentary party is mutinous. The Scottish Conservative Party has disowned him. He is ridiculed by comedians and cartoonists. Much of the Tory press, and most right-wing commentators, have rounded on him. The Telegraph’s letters pages are filled with spluttering fury. Party donors are aghast. Potential successors are jostling – semi-publicly – for position. 

At a time when the country desperately needs strong leadership to manage looming economic and social crises, Johnson has squandered all authority, credibility and respect, and has no time to focus on anything but his own survival. But there’s little he can do to turn things around. 

A man so manifestly unfit for office cannot suddenly become fit for office. Sacrificing his subordinates will be seen as scapegoating, blame-shifting and a very strange way of “taking full responsibility”. Defunding the BBC, deploying the Royal Navy to deter asylum seekers and other such populist announcements will be seen as the desperate, shameless and deeply cynical attempts to save his skin that they undoubtedly are.

Squirm and squeal as he may, the “greased piglet” cannot escape this time. He will not do the honourable thing and resign, but he may be forced out after Sue Gray reports on “partygate” or, more likely, after May’s local elections. It is only a matter of when.

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And then what? Well then, for the third time in six years, a tiny, utterly unrepresentative electorate of 360 Tory MPs and approximately 160,000 predominantly old, hidebound, well-heeled Conservative Party members from the Home Counties will get to choose our next prime minister.

Yes, that’s the same electorate that foisted the hapless Theresa May on the country in 2017. It’s the same electorate that sold its soul by making Johnson Prime Minister even though the MPs, particularly, knew full well that an unprincipled, unscrupulous, immoral conman like him should never have been allowed anywhere near No 10. It’s the same electorate that landed Britain in its present ghastly mess, and once again it will pick our next leader, not with the national interest in mind, but on purely ideological or electorally expedient grounds. 

Moreover, Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove or whoever they select will have two more years – to govern or misgovern – without any credible mandate for doing so. They will deploy the megaphone and spending powers of Downing Street to curry favour with voters, and to distance themselves from Johnson’s shambolic government, just as Johnson did from May’s. They will be able to choose the timing of the next election to give themselves maximum advantage.

It’s a rotten system, a broken and anachronistic system, but there will be nothing the long-suffering British public can do about it. I like to think, however, that when a general election is finally held, and with Labour now a plausible alternative in the way it manifestly wasn’t under Jeremy Corbyn, the Conservatives will be well and truly routed after more than a dozen dreadful years in power.

Johnson may be the worst prime minister in living memory, but it is the Conservative Party’s MPs and constituency parties who have promoted, enabled and protected him at every step.

Concerned only with winning at any cost, most said nothing as he lied to the country, parliament and the Queen; as he unlawfully prorogued parliament, reneged on international treaties and betrayed Northern Ireland; and as he purged the parliamentary party of decent, honourable Tories for daring to resist his lunatic plans for a no-deal Brexit, while packing his cabinet with loyalist mediocrities.

Most stayed silent as he sought to hobble the BBC, judiciary and civil service; as – wrapped in the union flag – he shamelessly practised the politics of division, tearing Britain’s social fabric apart; and as he picked needless fights with France and the European Union to keep his Red Wall base fired up. 

Most kept mum as scandal followed scandal; as he rewarded cronies with lucrative government contracts, jobs, peerages and knighthoods; as he seemingly accepted luxury holidays and flat refurbishments from wealthy supporters; and as he refused to explain why, as London’s mayor, he had allegedly channelled public funds to his lover, Jennifer Arcuri.

Most stood by Johnson as he debased the hallowed office of prime minister. Only now, amid public uproar at the way he turned No 10 into some sort of squalid backstreet nightclub (replete with complicit police officers standing guard outside) at the very moment he was locking the rest of the country down and tens of thousands were dying of Covid, have a few finally summoned the courage to speak out. Only now, when a Conservative prime minister has – incredibly – been forced to apologise to the Queen for No 10’s partying on the eve of her husband’s funeral, have they found some vestigial spine.

The once-proud Conservative Party is rotten to the core. It has allowed Johnson to corrupt it, and to corrupt it absolutely. It has forfeited any right to be seen as the party of law and order, of moral rectitude, of decency, honesty and respectability. It will be tainted and tarnished by Johnson’s disgraceful premiership for a generation, and it thoroughly deserves to be.

[See also: Shield, shrug and shaft: the corporate strategy keeping Boris Johnson in office]

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