It’s not just the man, but the culture
Make no mistake: Sue Gray’s preliminary report is as devastating as her constraints allowed. In her 31 January “update” to the government, the civil servant offered far stronger criticism about the Downing Street lockdown parties than many anticipated.
She described a “serious failure to observe… standards expected of the entire British population”, “failures of leadership and judgement by different parts of No 10” and condemned the “inappropriate” use of the Downing Street garden.
But of course the most serious part was demonstrated by what she could not say. Of the sixteen known gatherings, all but four have reached the threshold for police involvement. At least three of those twelve relate to the prime minister himself – including a party not in the Downing Street garden or offices, but the Johnsons’ private flat, in the middle of a full lockdown.
To reiterate: Boris Johnson is suspected of breaking laws he introduced and which he repeatedly instructed the nation to follow. The British prime minister is now under criminal investigation.
Johnson’s subsequent performance in the Commons revealed enough. Like a tired actor in rehearsals, he rushed through the sorrys and we’ll learns, privileging personal smears at Keir Starmer over feigned contrition.
For a man so frequently lauded as an actor, he could not even deign to perform. Johnson is a thin-skinned narcissist who craves public adulation and despises personal challenge; this was evidently torture.
The Commons session was a historic moment – a reckoning, even. Other prime ministers have endured torrid periods at the dispatch box and in the media through poorly executed decisions or conviction in failed policies. Here was a prime minister defending only his commitment to self-gratification, and without even the guts to admit it.
Beneath Johnson’s meek pretence of facts lay a primal belief in his own entitlement. This was a man who had risen to high office not to serve the public but to enjoy power. In contrast, Starmer’s speech may prove historic for everything Johnson lacks: decency, honesty and integrity. He appealed to Tory MPs not as political opponents but basic moral actors.
The only possible obstacle to the Prime Minister’s ego is 180 Conservative MPs deciding to remove him
It is almost impossible to imagine this crisis happening under any former prime minister. Hard, too, to imagine what their head of state might make of it.
Even those not disposed towards the monarchy will have been moved by the sight of the Queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral – it turns out, the day after the PM’s senior staff illegally partied in Downing Street. The Queen’s celebration of 70 years on the throne must be tempered by a political trajectory that started with Winston Churchill and ends with Boris Johnson. The fish rots from the head, and this fish is rotten throughout.
But of course, this is about much more than one man. It is a question of Britain’s political structure. Consider what happens next. If the Metropolitan Police imposes a fine on the prime minister, his position will – surely – be untenable. A leader cannot impose the most draconian peacetime laws in centuries and then be found to have gratuitously broken them. In spring 2020 a Labour whip had to resign for taking an illegal walk.
In reality though, this is not the police’s call. Neither they nor Gray can dislodge Johnson, and the British people have no say for another two years. The only possible obstacle to the Prime Minister’s ego is 180 Conservative MPs deciding to remove him in a vote of no-confidence.
Of course, they may not. Some will conclude that the longer he stays, the more deeply he will infect his party. But others will fear the absence of any stand-out successor and simply wish the problem away.
The real problem here is the unquestioned assumption that the Conservative Party will act according to its perceived self-interest. Even if MPs’ political conclusions are misjudged, they will act because they are political conclusions. That is to say, their concerns are explicitly and exclusively limited to a consideration of their electoral fortune.
This is the ultimate indictment not just of a political party, but a political culture. Not so long ago, Conservatives acted in what they considered the national interest. Their opponents bitterly disliked their vision but did not doubt their sincerity.
The party’s current incarnation is different. There is no idealism, or even ideology, beyond a faith in nationalist authoritarianism. There is certainly no question of considering Britain’s people or future. The idea is, indeed, derided as hopelessly naive.
Not all Republicans became sociopathic demagogues with the rise of Trump, but almost all shifted their behaviour to enable and reward it. So too with the Conservatives and Johnson. With each scandal he brushes off, they lower the bar for standards in public life and fitness for high office.
The leader of the self-proclaimed party of patriotism can do or say whatever he likes provided he does not threaten someone’s marginal constituency. Nothing at all matters beyond narrow self-advancement. Whatever the conclusion to this saga, it’s been a terrible moment for British democracy.
In the end we must ask a basic question. What is the point of public life? What are Conservative politicians elected to do? Do they even know? The satisfaction of one man’s insatiable ego is not a worthier goal than improving people’s lives. The interests of a political party are not more important than a country’s economy and security. Johnson was elected to be a winner. Winning is not enough.
Jonathan Lis is a political journalist and commentator. He has written for publications including the Guardian, Prospect and Washington Post, and regularly broadcasts on television and radio