Boris Johnson was always unfit to be prime minister. The traits he has displayed throughout the “partygate” scandal – mendacity, shamelessness, narcissism – have defined his career. Sue Gray’s report, needlessly redacted at the insistence of the Metropolitan Police, merely confirmed what was already known: Mr Johnson and his Downing Street team repeatedly flouted the rules that they imposed on others.
None of the defences offered by the Prime Minister’s more slavish supporters bears scrutiny. Whether he was a fool who did not understand the rules or a knave who did not care for them, the conclusion is a damning one.
Some assert that the Prime Minister and his team should be forgiven on account of their tireless work during the Covid-19 crisis. Yet even if we accept the premise – and Mr Johnson is hardly renowned for his Stakhanovite work ethic – millions of people abided by the rules despite the strains of the pandemic.
In retrospect, some of the Covid-19 restrictions were excessive. Small outdoor gatherings, for instance, posed little risk of transmission. Why were children prevented from playing outside? But Mr Johnson should have responded by changing the rules, not breaking them. In practice, as the former No 10 aide Nikki da Costa has testified, Downing Street rejected even the creation of support bubbles for the bereaved on the grounds that this would “send the wrong message to the public”.
Finally, in desperation, Mr Johnson’s allies plead that this is no time to change prime minister: Russia is menacing Ukraine and UK voters are facing a renewed living standards crisis. But far from being arguments for protecting Mr Johnson, these are reasons to oust him. The Prime Minister lacks the political and moral authority to address matters of state with the seriousness required.
That Mr Johnson has refused to resign, despite the opening of a criminal investigation into the events in Downing Street, is proof of why he should never have been entrusted with the highest office. Yet he is merely a symptom, rather than the cause, of the UK’s degeneration.
Mr Johnson 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. Before this, as the former Tory minister Rory Stewart recently observed, “Michael Howard and David Cameron made him a shadow minister, and Theresa May gave him the Foreign Office”. At every turn, Mr Johnson’s advance has depended upon the compliance and indulgence of others.
As Prime Minister, he has been aided by an over- centralised political system and an arcane, unwritten constitution. Matters have at least improved since Lord Hailsham warned in 1976 of the danger of an “elective dictatorship”. Under the last Labour government, the Human Rights Act was passed, Scotland and Wales were granted devolution, most hereditary peers were removed from the House of Lords and a freedom of information law was introduced.
But the British political system is still easily manipulable. A UK prime minister, provided they have a majority in the House of Commons, is almost unrivalled in Europe in their power. As well as ruling one of the most centralised states in the developed world – with local government enfeebled by austerity – they are able to appoint cabinet ministers and peers without confirmation hearings.
Since winning an outsize majority of 80 seats under the first-past-the-post system in 2019, Mr Johnson has exploited this system for all it is worth. He has stuffed the Lords with party donors and stooges, he has broken the law by seeking to prorogue parliament, and he has presided over rampant nepotism in the distribution of Covid-19 contracts. His government has introduced a US-style voter ID law to suppress opposition, it has intimidated and threatened the BBC and it is now seeking to criminalise protests that are deemed a “public nuisance”. As the Conservatives’ fear of losing power grows, they may deploy yet more ruthless devices to retain office.
If Mr Johnson’s own party intervenes, his premiership may prove mercifully short. But if UK democracy is to avoid falling prey to future demagogues, far more profound change is required.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under