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Leader: The rise of the know-nothing right

The Conservatives have become a party that proudly brandishes its ignorance and prejudice.

By New Statesman

The prospect of a prime minister surviving in office despite having broken the law would once have seemed extraordinary. But in the era of Boris Johnson it feels grimly inevitable.

None of the excuses provided by Mr Johnson’s more slavish supporters bears scrutiny. The insistence that a prime minister cannot be removed during wartime suggests that Conservative MPs either do not know or do not care for their country’s history. Herbert Asquith (replaced by David Lloyd George during the First World War), Neville Chamberlain (replaced by Winston Churchill during the Second World War) and Margaret Thatcher (replaced by John Major during the Gulf War) all left office in the midst of armed conflict.

There is no reason to believe that Mr Johnson’s departure would weaken the UK’s support for Ukraine. As our political editor Andrew Marr writes in the cover story, “Does anyone seriously think that a Britain run by Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat or Tobias Ellwood would have been less enthusiastic?”

The living standards crisis is a yet weaker argument for retaining Mr Johnson. Far from reducing the worst squeeze in Britain since records began, his government has exacerbated it through tax rises and benefits cuts.

Finally, far from having a comprehensive programme for government, Mr Johnson has resorted to stunts such as privatising Channel 4 and offshoring undocumented male migrants and asylum seekers to Rwanda, a plan as unworkable as it is unethical.

The truth, as Conservative MPs confess privately, is that they are clinging to the Prime Minister because they do not have an agreed successor. Rishi Sunak, once the favourite to succeed Mr Johnson, has incinerated his own reputation and revealed how little he understands politics. As foreign secretary, Liz Truss has already devalued one of the great offices of state.

But the removal of a prime minister who has broken the law should be automatic, not conditional. By failing to act, the Conservative Party has merely advertised its continuing decline. A once great and serious political institution has been reduced to a personality cult.

Mr Johnson did not seize Downing Street in a coup d’état – he was nominated by 160 Conservative MPs and then overwhelmingly elected by the elderly party membership. At every turn, his survival has depended upon the compliance and indulgence of others.

Tory MPs stood by Mr Johnson as he prorogued parliament, expelled 21 moderate, Europhile backbenchers, threatened to break international law, ennobled the Tory donor Peter Cruddas (in defiance of the House of Lords Appointments Commission), ennobled the Russian businessman Evgeny Lebedev (in defiance of the British intelligence services) and breached party funding rules through his profligate redecoration of the Downing Street flat.

As Peter Hennessy, the respected British historian, has observed, Mr Johnson is “the great debaser in modern times of decency in public and political life, and of our constitutional conventions”. And the Conservatives – the self-styled party of law and order – are complicit. In common with the Republicans, who permitted Donald Trump’s assault on US democracy, they have become enablers and partisans.

In the 1970s, the former New Statesman editor Paul Johnson wrote of the “know-nothing left”; today we are witnessing the rise of the know-nothing right – a Conservative party and movement that proudly brandishes its ignorance and prejudice and is anything but conservative in the Burkean sense.

One thinks of the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, who willingly humiliates herself on national TV, or Tom Pursglove, the minister for illegal migration, who revealed that he did not even know the population of Rwanda. Both exemplify a debased political culture that prizes know-nothing loyalty over independent judgement.

Even if Mr Johnson is soon removed, the damage to British democracy and to his party’s reputation will endure. The Prime Minister’s serial abuses have demonstrated the need for fundamental reform: the decentralisation of power from Westminster, the replacement of the House of Lords with an elected second chamber and an end to the party funding racket. But the first and most essential task is Mr Johnson’s removal from office.

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This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder