It’s now official. For the first time a British prime minister has been found to have committed a criminal act while in office. Boris Johnson has been found to have broken draconian laws that he himself imposed on the rest of the country in a time of national crisis.
Furthermore, the proverbial dog in the street now knows that he repeatedly lied to the House of Commons by protesting that there were no parties, then that there were parties but he did not know about them and no rules were broken, and then that he attended parties but nobody told him they were against the rules that he had himself approved.
It is also blatantly obvious that Johnson presided over a rotten, arrogant and disgraceful culture of law-breaking in Downing Street, with his wife and no less than 50 of his closest aides and officials now identified as lawbreakers and still more likely to be fined. The full and presumably damning report by the civil servant Sue Gray is yet to come.
Johnson will not do the honourable thing and resign. He has said it would take a “Panzer division” to remove him from No 10. But can even a politician as utterly shameless as he survive this ignominy? Can even this deeply compromised and corrupted Conservative parliamentary party ignore his egregious conduct?
Johnson’s apologists will protest that the Prime Minister cannot possibly be ousted in the midst of a war between Russia and Ukraine that is also a war between dictatorship and democracy — a war in which Johnson has established himself as a leader of the West. Jacob Rees-Mogg has already sought to dismiss “partygate” as so much “fluff” when set against the events unfolding in Ukraine.
Rishi Sunak’s implosion over his wife’s tax avoidance, and the fact that he himself has now been fined for attending lockdown parties, will make it even harder for Tory backbenchers to remove their leader. Sunak cannot possibly replace Johnson now, and there simply are no other plausible contenders in the cabinet. Liz Truss for prime minister, anyone? Priti Patel? It’s unlikely.
But the price the Tories would pay for protecting the Prime Minister would be enormous. How could they possibly set such a dreadful precedent, such a terrible example, by allowing a Prime Minister who has committed a crime and lied about it to remain in office? How could they possibly portray themselves as the party of law and order ever again? How could they possibly justify such a course to furious constituents who sacrificed so much, and who were unable to attend the deaths, funerals, weddings and births of loved ones during the lockdowns? Why should any British citizen trust, respect or listen to Johnson ever again?
Surely there are still 54 backbench Tory MPs who understand all this, and who will have the decency to at least trigger a leadership election by submitting letters of no confidence in Johnson? Or who will at least make the selfish calculation that their party faces an absolute rout in the 6 May local elections — and quite possibly the next general election — if Johnson remains prime minister?
As for the argument that Johnson should not be replaced in wartime, I would turn it on its head. How can we demonstrate the moral, practical and political superiority of Western democracy over Putin’s dictatorship if we spare a leader who breaks his own laws, lies to parliament and takes the people for fools?