“Don’t they know there’s a war on?” said the front page of today’s Daily Mail, which excoriates those calling for Boris Johnson’s resignation after he was fined by the Met Police for attending a party during lockdown. Across the land, Jacob Rees-Mogg, loyal cabinet ministers and Conservative MPs are running the same line: the nation needs Johnson now more than ever as he defends the country against Russia.
Back in the real world, however, Britain is not at war in Ukraine. The nation’s armed forces are not engaged in combat operations against Russia. And Johnson is not a wartime leader. The rhetoric from Conservative politicians and sections from the media is shameful and callous political positioning. Ordinary people in Ukraine are fighting an existential battle with little meaningful help from the rest of the world. Their lives are being snuffed out by military aggression on a scale not seen in Europe since the Second World War. Invoking the horrific suffering of Ukrainians to get Johnson out of hot water is just plain nasty.
However, it is worth exploring the idea that Johnson has wartime political immunity. How much water does it hold? Has war been a reason to stop the transition of prime ministers in the past?
First of all, there is the example of Herbert Asquith. In 1916, with the First World War entering its third year, munitions shortages on the western front, the catastrophe of Gallipoli and a general sense that Asquith was not on top of matters, his Liberals were forced into a coalition with the Conservatives. Yet even national unity was not enough and Asquith’s continuing unpopularity led to his resignation in December 1916, handing the keys of Downing Street to David Lloyd George.
The Second World War had similarly turbulent effects for Neville Chamberlain. He was widely criticised for mishandling the war and his mauling in a vote of confidence in May 1940 prompted him to resign, to be replaced by Winston Churchill.
Both these transitions were bruising for the incumbent prime ministers, and the fact that the nation was at war gave them no protection. To the contrary, in fact: their poor handling of wartime Britain was the cause of their downfalls.
There have similarly been transitions at No 10 during more modern wars. British forces were deployed in major combat operations in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, and Iraq from 2003 to 2011, yet we had three prime ministers in that time. Tony Blair bowed out and handed No 10 to Gordon Brown in 2007, who was beaten by David Cameron in the general election of 2010.
Last of all there is a purely technical matter of course: the legacy of Oliver Cromwell’s failed seventeenth-century military dictatorship means a firm separation of Westminster and the military. Even when Britain’s forces are at war, their oath (the Oath of Allegiance) remains the same as when they signed up: pledging allegiance and protection to the Queen, her heirs and successors, and vowing obedience to them and the generals and officers who command. There is no mention of any politician in the oath.
But ultimately, apart from the fact that there is plenty of historical precedent for removing a prime minister during wartime, Boris Johnson is guilty of breaking the law. The terrible suffering of the Ukrainian people has no bearing, and it is shameful to invoke it to try to throw him a lifeline.