It is Boris Johnson’s second birthday as Prime Minister and we are now well aware of his flaws. We knew them when he took office. He is not telling the truth. He does not seem able to maintain a political principle. He favors personal interest over national interest. He is prepared to encourage division if it helps politically. He has no respect for the standards of public life. It does not have the intellectual capacity to ensure good government.
There is no point in going over each of these qualities. We understand them well and he provides new proof of them every day. What is more relevant is how others react to his presence at the top of government. How does the system react? How do individuals treat it? Is his behavior isolated or is it normalized? Will it be seen as something specific to the period in which we live, or will it define how the country works?
Yesterday provided a case in point. Labor MP Dawn Butler rose in the Commons and listed numerous instances in which Johnson has misled Parliament. He had “lied to the House and to the country over and over again,” she said.
It was followed by all the mess and absurdity customary in modern political life. The clip went viral, Butler made the most of it, people asked the BBC to cover it when they had already done so. Normal noise. But once all of that was over, a deep constitutional question arose.
New national food strategy offers “little more than crumbs”
MDU and CORESS partner to promote safety in surgical practice
Two principles had come into conflict. On the one hand, misleading the House is supposed to be a serious accusation. It used to be the kind of thing you quit for, or at least apologize for. But even though Butler’s examples are well documented, this did not happen.
On the other hand, parliamentary rules state that MPs are not allowed to accuse each other of lying in the House of Commons. So when Butler gave his speech, what was to follow was clear. He was told to retract. She refused. She was thrown out.
What is the difference? Why did one principle hold while the other fell? This is because one is directly enforceable by the President and the other is not. If a Member accuses another Member of lying, the Speaker must intervene. But the House deception rule is much weaker. It’s a convention.
It is in the ministerial code, which specifies that “the ministers who knowingly mislead the Parliament in error will have to present their resignation to the Prime Minister”. But the ministerial code is at the discretion of the prime minister. He decides if he was raped and if and how to investigate him. He decides the outcome. It goes without saying that he does not apply it to himself. And even when it comes to his ministers, like Priti Patel last year, he decides not to apply it.
This brought us to what we saw yesterday. It was a grotesque reversal of natural justice. Anyone who deceives parliament can escape all consequences. The person who reports it is censored. This is the result that the system has generated: the one who lies gets away with it, while the one who speaks the truth is punished.
Our system is based on honor. It assumes that the Prime Minister is a person of unquestionable moral stature, so that they can be given the power to regulate themselves and to regulate others. It has always been a silly idea – constitutional control and restriction should be proportionate to executive power, not inversely proportional to it. But now it’s disastrous, because it gives someone without moral stature the ability to escape all the consequences.
Johnson militarized the freedom the system gave him. In this regard, despite their public war, he is identical to Dominic Cummings. They were both ready to tear up any convention or principle in order to get what they wanted: to lie, to illegally suspend parliament, to tear apart the commercial integrity of Britain, to wreck the peace process, to eradicate the standards of public life, distribute contracts to your friends, money to redecorate your apartment, settle regulatory issues by SMS. This is what they do. Cummings is proud of it. Johnson claims he doesn’t. He comes out the same.
A similar process applies to people within the system. We all have a responsibility when we see basic principles decline. We can hold the line or we can tolerate change. If it is the latter, these principles really cease to function as functional elements of political life.
Of course, if you are in another political party, everything becomes much easier. You condemn it – it’s in your best interests to do so. But even if you’re on the same party, it’s easy to condemn when the behavior is unpopular. This is why so many Conservative MPs found their moral standards during Cummings’ Barnard Castle debacle. It wasn’t really outrage. It was that he was clearly unpopular and dangerous to their own fortunes.
In Johnson’s case, many high-ranking Tory figures have none of these incentives. They are in his party and he remains popular with his target demographic. So they have no reason to challenge him.
This applies to entire sections of the Conservative parliamentary party. They know it is not suited for the job. Many are likely aware that its mismanagement of the pandemic has cost tens of thousands of lives. But as long as he can convincingly say that he makes it easier for them to hold their seat, they will support him.
Right-wing journalists and commentators follow the same pattern. They are aware that all the rules are being broken. If it was a Labor prime minister doing it, they would be rightly outraged. But they are not, so they are not.
The question of Johnson’s moral character is resolved by referring to something quite different: his popular support. It’s the equivalent of someone asking you if you liked a movie, and you say it’s very popular. That was not the point. Some things matter whether others like them or not.
This political and journalistic endorsement – or rather, the cynical shifting of the debate to exclude moral judgment – helps normalize Johnson’s behavior. The effect of this is not limited to what is happening today. This will have an impact on what happens in the future, opening up the possibility for future prime ministers to ignore the standards of public life just as Johnson did. It takes a system ostensibly based on standards and replaces it with a system whose only principle is to get out of it.
This is Johnson’s main achievement after two years in office. And it is really very disreputable.