Boris Johnson clings to the desk like chewing gum to a shoe but it peels off | Andrew Rawnsley
Boris Johnson once explained his desire to get into politics, saying: “They don’t erect statues to journalists.”
I doubt anyone other than him is planning one, but his place in history is definitely set in stone. He earned the sad distinction of being both the first Prime Minister to receive a criminal sanction while in office and the first to be investigated for contempt of Parliament. After being fined by police for breaking life and death laws he himself introduced to curb Covid, the privileges committee will rule on his repeated false denials in the Commons. Britain has had risky leaders before, but no former incumbent has generated such a double disgrace, either of which would have resulted in the resignation of any of his predecessors.
Rather than leaving, he wants everyone to move on. But we cannot get out of this scandal in principle and in practice. His misconduct goes to the heart of the integrity of our policy. Can an offender be the chief legislator of the country? And can a Prime Minister who has repeatedly and blatantly misled Parliament remain in office? Every day they allow him to stay there, Tory MPs choose to say yes to both of those questions. In doing so, the so-called law and order party is complicit in serious offenses that have always been considered automatic grounds for impeachment, poisons public confidence in our democracy and sets an atrocious precedent.
To be fair to the Conservatives, some of them are very upset to be led by a rogue Prime Minister. The conservative ranks contain people with a moral compass who still value the standards of public life. Their voice was heard by David Wolfson when he resigned as justice minister, saying the government cannot “credibly uphold democratic standards abroad, especially in times of war in Europe, only if we are, and are seen to be, resolutely committed both to the rule of law and also to the rule of law”.
It’s also fair to say that many Tory MPs don’t lose a blink of an eye on the principles at stake. Otherwise Mr Johnson would have been long gone, rather than clinging to Number 10 like a piece of chewing gum. dirty gum stuck to the sole of the constitution shoe. Yet even Tory MPs who share his contempt for ethical standards have to worry that it won’t go away. Police are reported to have started issuing charge notices for the famous ‘Bring Your Own Booze’ party at Number 10 hosted by the Prime Minister’s Private Secretary. It’s the one Mr Johnson claims to have attended because he mistook a garden full of people drinking alcohol for a ‘work event’. As I write, we cannot be sure whether a second fine will be imposed on him or not.
The latest batch of police penalties comes on top of the 50 fines for breaches of Covid safeguards already imposed on residents of Downing Street. I haven’t seen any evidence to contradict the claim that this makes number 10 the most law breaking address in the realm. And police have yet to announce their verdict on many other Downing Street booze during the pandemic, including several that Mr Johnson is known to have attended. His cynical calculation all along has been that time will be his saviour. He figured he could work his way through this sordid saga until people were tired of it.
Time is now becoming his enemy as he realizes to Tory MPs that they will get no respite from this scandal as long as he stays at number 10. will never end, will it? Even Johnson loyalists shudder at the prospect of new slices of police fines sparking new waves of visceral public anger. A recent opinion poll indicates that less than a tenth of voters think he didn’t lie about partygate. “The longer this lasts, the more the stain extends to all of us”, observes a senior conservative official. A particularly serious concern in the Prime Minister’s circle is how people will react if they see the many pictures of Downing Street drinking while people are dying. For headlines and opposition parties, partygate is the gift that keeps on giving. For the Conservative Party, it is shame that continues to grow.
One result is that fewer and fewer of his MPs are willing to act as human shields for the Prime Minister by humbling themselves on his behalf. This was demonstrated during the shenanigans surrounding the referral to the Privileges Committee. Number 10’s horribly ill-judged attempt to thwart an investigation had to be dropped in the face of a rebellion by Tory MPs fearing they could be charged with complicity in a cover-up. As for the debate, only one Tory MP, the Prime Minister’s former political secretary Danny Kruger, was ready to offer wholehearted support while a succession of opposition speakers described Mr Johnson as a liar breaking the law. Never has a Prime Minister seemed so friendless.
Tory MPs report that morale is being undermined by the fury they encounter on the doorstep as well as the psychological wear and tear from regurgitating alibis they know to be false. William Wragg, who made the finest of Conservative contributions to the debate, remarked: “It is quite depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time, a part of us withers. Steve Baker is one of the curators who has reached the end of his life. He added his voice to those calling on the Prime Minister to leave – “the concert is over” – on the grounds that he could not find his expressions of repentance genuine. Boris Johnson, not sincere? Good point, Mr. Baker. The Brexit fanatic was instrumental in getting Mr Johnson to number 10 in the first place and has a reputation as an organizer. This call for the Prime Minister to leave is also remarkable because it shows that anti-Johnson MPs are not confined, as loyalists would have it, to the Remoaners and others who have always hated him. Those who want it are now represented on all points of the conservative spectrum.
However, many of them are still looking for reasons not to act. You know their excuses. Wait for the May election, wait for Sue Gray’s full report, wait to see how many fines he will get, wait for the party conference, wait for the war in Ukraine to be over, wait while I try to grow a vertebrate.
The main explanation for their prevarication is that there is no agreed successor, a dilemma all the more acute as the implosion of Rishi Sunak’s reputation has deprived the Conservative Party of its most obvious alternative. It is true that there is no consensus on who should take over, but it has so often been the case in the history of the Conservative Party that it is unclear who will emerge as the next leader until until there is a vacancy.
In 1940, many conservatives thought Winston Churchill would be a disastrous prime minister. Only in hindsight did he seem like the inevitable choice. Very few expected Margaret Thatcher to take the crown before challenging Ted Heath. It was not clear long in advance that Alec Douglas-Home, John Major or Theresa May would become Prime Minister.
The events of the past few days have exposed the ethical impoverishment and spineless paralysis among conservatives. The Conservative Party is too afraid to support its discredited leader and too afraid to fire him.
Threatening to the Prime Minister, many of his MPs realize that this is unsustainable. “I think the dial has changed. More of us say that we cannot go on like this, ”reports a former minister. “With this, we will not put.” Another senior Tory agrees: ‘More colleagues say everything will be better than this, everyone has to be better than Boris.’
To defenestrate him would be a step into the unknown for the Tories, but a growing number of desperate party MPs are being led to conclude that a leap into obscurity is less perilous for them than remaining demeaningly tied to a Prime doubly dishonored minister. No one can be sure when a critical mass of Tory MPs will decide enough is enough, but I have a strong feeling that more of them have become more ready to push him into the ejection seat.