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5 July 2022

Leader: Boris Johnson’s departure alone is not enough

The UK needs transformative political, constitutional and economic change.

By New Statesman

The squalor and ineptitude of Boris Johnson’s premiership damages not only the Conservative Party but the whole of the United Kingdom. It was only a month ago that 211 Tory MPs voted that they had confidence in the Prime Minister. At the time, the rebels warned that another scandal was inevitable because of Mr Johnson’s suspect moral character, and so it proved.  

Downing Street’s lies over whether the Prime Minister knew about the past allegations against the former deputy chief whip, Chris Pincher, prompted a long overdue cabinet revolt. A man accused of sexual harassment was appointed to a position of power by a leader who reportedly referred to him as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”. For Rishi Sunak, who had long contemplated resignation, and for Sajid Javid, who previously walked away from Johnson’s cabinet in February 2020, this proved too much.

But no one who accepted a place in Mr Johnson’s government should be surprised that he has been consumed by scandal. The Prime Minister specialises in bypassing legal and ethical obstacles. He ennobled the Tory donor Peter Cruddas (in defiance of the House of Lords Appointments Commission) and the Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev (in defiance of the British intelligence services), broke lockdown laws and breached party funding rules. As the historian Peter Hennessy has observed, Mr Johnson is “the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions”.  

The Prime Minister has worn many masks throughout his long career, but mendacity has been a constant. As the stakes have grown, so have the lies. The claim that Brexit would gift the UK £350m a week for the NHS; the assurance that there would be no customs checks in the Irish Sea; the insistence that no parties were held at Downing Street during lockdown. All of these have unravelled and have stained the UK’s global reputation. Now, as even his most sycophantic supporters lose faith, the Prime Minister has no one left to lie to.  

Mr Johnson’s Britain, in its rampant corruption, seediness and economic decay, increasingly resembles Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy. The Conservative Party, which saw in Mr Johnson an election-winner rather than a huckster unfit to hold the highest public office, must now end this farce or be further damned by its complicity.  

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But the UK’s malaise will not end with the Prime Minister’s exit. The kingdom is fragmented and if the Union is to endure – the SNP is mobilising for a second Scottish independence referendum, as the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, made clear on 28 June, in a speech to the Holyrood parliament – transformative political, constitutional and economic change is urgently required.  

Since 2010, the UK has endured a lost decade not only for the economy but also for the nation’s constitution. Far from redressing Britain’s democratic defects and deficits, the Conservatives have intensified them. They have stuffed the House of Lords with yet more donors and stooges. They have extended the use of the arcane first-past-the-post system to mayoral contests and introduced US-style voter ID laws. And they have used the “good chaps” theory of government to entrench Mr Johnson in power. If any of this is to be remedied, it will take more than a Conservative defeat at the next election.

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But Mr Johnson should never have become prime minister. It bears remembering that he did not seize Downing Street in a coup d’état; he was nominated by 160 Conservative MPs – who knew his defects – and then overwhelmingly elected by the party membership. He also won a commanding majority in the 2019 general election on the crude pledge to “get Brexit done”, whatever that means.  

At every point, Mr Johnson’s advance has depended upon the complicity of others, including the right-wing press. Some of those who knew him well, such as his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, and his former Spectator colleague Matthew Parris, tried in vain to warn Tory MPs that he would betray them just as he had betrayed others. But his dismal rule has shown why the UK needs more than a change of leader: it needs a complete renewal of its moral purpose and governance. Mr Johnson has disgraced the office of prime minister and shamed Britain.

[See also: Why Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak finally lost patience with Boris Johnson]

This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson