Sometimes it is only when you try to defend something that you realise it is indefensible. This is a conclusion that should have dawned on a number of Conservative politicians in recent days as they gave their support to Boris Johnson.
The various justifications for the Prime Minister’s continuance in office included statements such as “probably in most homes… people may not have kept absolutely to the rules”, “he’s not robbed a bank”, “Johnson does not lie any more than the rest of us” and “he was ambushed by a cake”. These are not, in my view, overwhelmingly convincing arguments.
For the last few weeks, ministers have been able to make one argument that just about held up – “wait for the report from Sue Gray”. It was an implausible and silly argument for Johnson to make himself but his colleagues could get away with it at the cost of coming across as remarkably incurious (“why haven’t you asked him?”). Those ministers who have got through interviews with the least damage to their reputation have managed to convey the impression (but without putting it in so many words) that they were pretty disgusted by what was going on but that we might as well complete the investigation before passing sentence.
This option is no longer available. The publication of the Sue Gray report is imminent. The evidence she has uncovered has met the police’s threshold for opening an investigation of the “most serious and flagrant type of breach” and those involved “knew or ought to have known that what they were doing was an offence”.
What can be said in defence of the Prime Minister? One option is to say that he did not understand the rules and that he thought he was acting within them. This is hard to maintain when it was the Prime Minister who approved the rules. When it came to the lockdown restrictions, he presumably read submissions from officials setting out his options, held meetings in which the recommendations were interrogated, considered the various boundary issues and hard cases and then, when he was confident that he understood the implications of the proposals, made a decision. He must have known what the rules said. And if he did not, the argument that he was a fool and not a knave is not greatly to his credit.
The hybrid nature of 10 Downing Street will be used as a justification. It is true that it is both a home and a workplace and one can see how this may result in some blurred lines – but that is something to which the Prime Minister should be alert. By the time BYOB invitations are going out to a hundred people, it is hard to make the case for ambiguity.
The next argument is that others may have broken the rules – officials, advisers, his wife, a birthday cake – but he was not responsible. If we were talking about an isolated instance, this argument might have some merit but the sheer number of these instances suggests that there was a wider issue. What was it about the culture in Johnson’s Downing Street that made people think that rules could be flouted?
Some argue that the rules were wrong but that is irrelevant. They were the rules. His rules. One could claim that the rules were widely flouted. The evidence does not support that but, again, they were his rules.
OK, OK, say his supporters. Rules may have been broken but in a specific and limited way and it would be disproportionate for him to be removed as Prime Minister, what with Ukraine and everything. And, by the way, inexperienced Conservative MPs in marginal seats, you do know this will mean that there will be a general election?
This last point is constitutional nonsense, put about largely by those who agitated for months for Theresa May to resign but, in my recollection, made no reference to an ensuing general election. It is an argument designed for the gullible.
The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine is not an ideal time to change prime minister. An early move by Vladimir Putin may save Johnson for the time being. The fact the leadership of the Conservative Party is decided by party members makes the process cumbersome which may persuade MPs to hold off. But if they believe that Boris Johnson is an international statesman of stature capable of galvanising Western allies, they really have not been paying attention to how his premiership is viewed from overseas. (And, on the basis of previous actions, his principal contribution to our efforts will be to divert resources to helping some pet sanctuary in Kyiv.)
The essential question with Boris Johnson is one of trust. Can he be trusted to comply with the same laws that apply to the rest of us? Can he be trusted to tell the truth? Can he be trusted to meet the standards that we expect from our prime ministers? We all know the answers to those questions. Tolerating him makes Conservative MPs complicit.
These are not small matters. Successful countries – particularly in a crisis – depend upon trust; public trust in our leaders and our institutions; international trust in our reliability as allies. Johnson’s premiership corrodes that trust. It should be ended.
[See also: David Gauke: How my party lost its way]