I used to resist the comparison between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. They were too easy, too obvious, lacking subtlety. Though it seemed they were riding similar (political) waves, the individual surfers were quite different. Their motivations were different.
But I’ve had to reassess. As the years have passed, it is clear that Johnson has morphed into someone else, moving further in Trump’s direction. Perhaps he always had it in him, perhaps he has fed off Trump’s energy, or been inspired by the latter’s sense of impunity. This process reached a culmination in Johnson’s parting gift to parliament, a resignation letter torching the institution and its processes, of which he was once custodian. Read it aloud in Trump’s voice – his stresses and rhythms – and you wouldn’t think twice.
This is a tragic state of affairs for Johnson, who I suspect ten years ago would have seen this Ghost of Johnson Future and regretted it. But it is a far greater, and more serious state of affairs for the country and for the Conservative Party.
Ostensibly, British institutions held up well against a demagogue at the heart of government. Johnson was removed from office and even from parliament. There is little immediate prospect of his running for election again. He met his political end at the hands of an established set of parliamentary mechanisms and a committee dominated by his own party. Such actions would be unthinkable in Trump’s Washington: he orchestrated a violent insurrection against the US government – and yet only ten Republicans moved to impeach him afterwards.
Yet the Conservatives seem to be making the same mistake with Johnson as Republicans have repeatedly done with Trump – by keeping their heads down and hoping it all goes away. The condemnations for Johnson from the top of the Tory party have been anaemic. Michael Gove, who once destroyed a putative Johnson premiership because he knew he wasn’t suitable, said on Sunday (18 June) he would abstain on the parliamentary vote on the Privileges Committee’s recommendations. Rishi Sunak followed up today with a feeble explanation that this was a matter for parliament and not for him. His spokesperson refused to even say what the PM makes of it all.
This is stunning. We are in an unprecedented situation: a former prime minister has been judged to have repeatedly lied to parliament and, therefore, to the public. He is judged to have repeatedly brought parliament into contempt. And his successor thinks it has nothing to do with him, that he has no responsibility to bear. Sunak repeatedly clings to precedent, a hollow reasoning, when he knows – as we all know – that this situation is without one.
Sunak’s pusillanimity is also a poor strategic choice. Johnson and his narrow band of supporters already loathe him so meekness will not secure him supporters; but nor does he win any spurs by appearing straightforward and brave.
But this matters more than Sunak or his increasingly threadbare government. It matters because, if the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that democracy is a set of values or it is nothing. It is up to political elites to defend those values or it disappears. Johnson’s political transgression is a grave one. It is up to his successors to do a better job than he did in upholding the government’s standards and institutions. They can start by explaining to the public why Johnson had to go, why what he did was unacceptable, and why it should never happen again. They need to defend the truth and reject the lies he spreads.
In America we see what follows when this doesn’t happen. Senior Republicans have ducked when they had the chance to explain to the electorate and party activists why Trump is so damaging. Last week the House speaker Kevin McCarthy tried absurdly to explain away Trump’s storing of top secret documents in a bathroom in his Mar-a-Lago resort with the excuse that there was a lock on the door. If political elites aren’t willing to defend our political order, how do we expect the public to respect it?
British democracy’s saving grace, compared with its rapid decline in the American republic, is the relative lack of polarisation of our electorate. Polling evidence says the public made up its mind about Johnson long ago. There is little appetite for a renewed hearing. But it matters within the Conservative family. Already Johnson’s outriders tell anyone who will listen that their great hero is the victim, not the sinner. They spread the myth that he was hounded out of office by an establishment that abhors him for defending the public’s values.
We know what happens when the cancer of betrayal metastasises from within a body politic. Especially in our age, where conspiracy theories spread quickly, when we have a new set of right-wing TV channels – one in particular appears determined to pump out pro-Johnson content according to a jaundiced understanding of “impartiality” or truth. The Tories, as the Republicans did, are storing up problems for their own future. Without a resounding rejection of the man, without a formal response and a narrative, the man, and his ideas, may soon return. Why shouldn’t they? It was never explained, aside from by avowed political opponents, why he had to go in the first place.
The four Conservatives on the Privileges Committee deserve our gratitude. They have been brave. They have done what our constitution and indeed their patriotism required of them. What a lily-livered tragedy, what an abdication, that their own leaders refuse to do the same.
There is one sense in which Johnson is worse than Trump. Trump, in a way, has no clue what he’s doing. He’s a bag of screaming political urges and appetites. He thinks only of his interest, not the truth, with little to no conception of the institutions and norms he destroys, nor their history or their importance to a healthy democracy. Johnson, in contrast, is a creature of Westminster steeped in the long arc of parliament and its evolution; he understands perfectly the norms he sought to destroy. And yet he still acts. This makes the responsibility of senior Conservatives to denounce all the greater, and their cowardice all the more inexplicable.