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18 April 2022

Tory MPs, end your spineless passivity and remove Boris Johnson

By defending the Prime Minister’s serial abuses of power, the Conservative Party has fallen into the sewer.

By Martin Fletcher

This column is addressed to the 358 members of the Conservative parliamentary party who have – with a few honourable exceptions – stayed silent at best, and defended Boris Johnson at worst, as he has become, according to the eminent constitutional historian Peter Hennessy, “the greatest debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life”.  

Shame on you for foisting upon us a prime minister you knew to be unfit for office. 

Shame on you for looking the other way as scandal has succeeded prime ministerial scandal – lucrative public contracts for supporters, jobs and honours for cronies, “wallpapergate”, luxury paid-for holidays, Jennifer Arcuri. 

Shame on you for keeping mum as Johnson has repeatedly lied to parliament and the country; as he has breached solemn international agreements and manifesto promises; as he has stuffed his cabinet with loyal mediocrities to the detriment of good government; and as he has studiously avoided accountability by parliament and the media.

Shame on you for not speaking out as our “rogue Prime Minister” has defended the bullying committed by Priti Patel, the lobbying breaches of Owen Paterson, and the flagrant breaking of Covid rules by Dominic Cummings and Matt Hancock; as he has smeared opponents and practised the deeply cynical politics of division – demonising asylum seekers, “lefty lawyers”, civil servants, europhiles, the “metropolitan elite”, the BBC, Brussels and the French; and as he has turned Downing Street into what Hennessy calls “an adventure playground for his narcissistic vanity”.

Shame on you for saying nothing as Johnson has breached almost every one of the previously sacrosanct Nolan Principles – the seven ethical standards governing those in public service: integrity, accountability, openness, honesty, selflessness, leadership and objectivity. No previous prime minister has managed to fall foul of the Supreme Court, the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, the Lords Appointments Commission, the Electoral Commission, the UK Statistics Authority and two of his own advisers.

Not even now, after Johnson has become the first British prime minister to be fined for breaking the law in office and his venality has been laid bare, do you have the guts to demand his removal. Instead you prevaricate, procrastinate or peddle pathetic excuses.

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You say that he was fined for spending less than ten minutes at a birthday party, and that he was ambushed by a cake, conveniently ignoring the fact that he is being investigated for attending several parties and is accused of instigating one of them.

You say his fixed penalty notice is no more serious than a parking ticket, ignoring the fact that he repeatedly and knowingly breached the draconian regulations that he imposed on the country at a time of national emergency, then repeatedly lied about his disgraceful conduct to the House of Commons.

You say that partygate is so much “fluff”: tell that to those who were unable to be at the death beds, funerals, births or weddings of loved ones. 

You say he has apologised, but he doesn’t mean it: on GBNews earlier this month he dismissed partygate as a “lot of nonsense”. 

You say you cannot oust him now because there’s a war on, but it is not Britain’s war. His successor would follow exactly the same policies, and there are plenty of precedents for changing prime ministers in times of conflict.

You say his transgressions should be overlooked because he “got the big things right”. Really? Yes, he “got Brexit done”, but only by agreeing a botched deal that sold Britain short, betrayed Northern Ireland and is still hotly contested. Yes, he approved the successful search for a Covid vaccine, but he locked the country down late, let the pandemic spread to care homes and presided over one of the highest death rates in the developed world. Yes, he has offered robust support to Ukraine, but would any other British leader have done differently?

You also say – privately, not publicly – that there’s no obvious successor to Johnson since Rishi Sunak imploded so spectacularly. Is that really true? Has the Conservative parliamentary party been so purged of good, honest, competent MPs that no plausible replacements remain? Is there really nobody more electable than a man who only 11 per cent of voters consider trustworthy? Or is the party so deeply factionalised that a leadership contest would tear it apart? 

Ever since the partygate scandal broke you have played for time, arguing that we should wait for Sue Gray to report, for the police to investigate, for May’s local elections, for the Ukraine war to end. You have endlessly procrastinated, hoping partygate will somehow go away. But it won’t. 

As early as tomorrow you may be forced to vote on whether your leader misled, or should be investigated for misleading, parliament when he insisted that there were no parties and no rules were broken. Thereafter he is likely to be fined two or three more times, and for parties far more egregious than his birthday bash. And when the fines end, Gray will be allowed to publish her damning report on the whole affair.

Hennessey calls partygate “the most severe constitutional crisis involving a prime minister” that he can remember, and the longer it lasts the more profoundly damaging it becomes to the country you profess to love and serve.

It is corroding the public’s little remaining trust in politics and politicians. It is shredding Britain’s unwritten constitution, and setting terrible precedents. It has rendered the government almost incapable of focusing on anything but Johnson’s survival.

It seems paralysed in the face of the looming cost-of-living crisis. It pays little more than lip service to its flagship policy of “levelling up”. As even ardent Brexiteers such as David Frost admit, it is doing practically nothing to realise the supposed benefits of leaving the EU. 

Johnson and his cabinet toadies instead chuck red meat to their dwindling band of supporters. They seek to placate their party’s right-wing zealots with Nadine Dorries’ plans to privatise Channel 4. They pander to xenophobes with Patel’s “world-class” plan to ship asylum-seekers 6,000 miles to Rwanda, one of Africa’s most sinister regimes

In February one of your previous leaders, John Major, said of those refugees seeking to cross the Channel: “Can it really be a crime to be frightened, homeless, desperate, destitute, fleeing from persecution or war or famine or hardship – and to cross half the world on foot and dangerous waters in an unsafe boat in the hope of finding a better life?” 

The longer this fiasco goes on the more lasting harm it does to you and your party. You are defending the indefensible. Your passivity makes you complicit in Johnson’s shameful conduct. You are trashing the Conservatives’ reputation for being the party of law and order. 

You are forfeiting the support of millions of traditional, moderate Tories and centrist floating voters, for the great divide in British politics is no longer left versus right, or Remainers versus Leavers, but honesty, decency and integrity versus dishonesty, malice and borderline corruption. Stay in a sewer and you will inevitably end up stinking.

The country deserves better. It deserves a prime minister of whom it can be proud, who has the moral authority to lead, and who does not endlessly demean his office or treat Downing Street as “an adventure playground for his narcissistic vanity”. It deserves a government that seeks to unite not divide, and that can govern ably, fairly and in the interests of all.

You know that all of the above is true. You know the right thing to do. You know it is time to cease your spineless passivity, to stop wrestling with your consciences, and to submit your letters of no confidence in a prime minister who has shamed the United Kingdom.

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