Tory MPs don’t need any new information to judge whether Boris Johnson is fit to stay in office, and as they haven’t removed him yet there’s a good chance they never will .
Sue Gray’s report on breaches of lockdown rules in Downing Street will embellish and illustrate a story already known. The laws imposed on the country during a public health emergency have been flouted at the center of government and by the person ultimately responsible – the Prime Minister; lawmaker number one – was an outlaw himself. Asked about it in parliament, he lied.
All this has been known for months. Johnson’s reprobate has been on display for years. That makes two categories of Conservative MPs. There are those who were truly appalled when they realized their boss was a villain, and those who never objected to his malpractice on moral grounds, but fear it was a liability. electoral.
If the first group was big enough to force the resignation of their leader, they would have already done so. The second group has enough data to infer that the Conservative majority could be in jeopardy if Johnson leads his party to a general election, but no way to be sure. By-election defeats, opinion polls and lost council seats prove that voters are unhappy now, but there’s always the chance they’ll rejoice again.
Also, there is no replacement leader with sufficiently obvious talents to make dropping the incumbent a low-risk bet. The stakes seem higher as the next election approaches. Moreover, the postponement of action against Johnson reinforces the impression that he is a master of political evasion. It’s a feedback loop: Tory MPs cower at the tough decision and recount this cowardice as evidence of their leader’s uncanny knack for survival.
Their weakness is its strength, as it always has been. Johnson won the leadership in 2019 because conservatives were panicked and demoralized. The party came fifth in the European elections, winning just under 9% of the vote. The threat posed by Nigel Farage’s Brexit party seemed existential. MPs who had previously sworn to hinder Johnson’s ambitions to be leader, either because they had been personally wronged by him or because they had simply observed that he was wrong, decided instead that he was their only hope of salvation.
This choice was rewarded at the ballot box, and the reluctance to reassess it is the mainstay that sustains the Prime Minister today. That could keep him in place until the next election, not out of a realistic expectation of another massive victory or sentimental loyalty, but because the point of following Johnson was to avoid confronting issues that his withdrawal would raise again. He is protected by the fear of seeing the cracks, the crumbling plaster, the mold and the humidity that the lively candidacy of “Boris” has covered.
There are glimpses of it in every corner, where the paper has already peeled off. The government has no answer to the cost of living crisis because the Prime Minister and Chancellor cannot agree on who should get help, when and how it should be funded. There are Downing Street advisers who say a windfall tax on energy companies would be ‘unconservative’, which is to interpret conservatism narrowly as a creed for government as a protector of profits businesses, indifferent to poverty.
That’s one definition, but British history offers others that include intervention in social crises. There was also once a kind of conservatism that cared about keeping things; observe the rules and conventions that are supposed to maintain the honesty of government. There was, until recently, a conservatism that recognized the rule of law as the foundation of democracy and recognized the inherent wickedness of politicians who apologize for the rules they impose on the little people.
Now the Conservatives are led by such a man. The choice to continue under his leadership is also existential. The more they allow a form of government that recognizes no principle higher than the Prime Minister’s right to power, the harder it becomes to explain what other values the party represents.
There was a moment earlier this year when the weight of public outrage over the lockdown parties crushed Johnson’s political life, but Tory MPs failed to finish it off. With this stay of execution, they said it was not ethically wrong for a prime minister to cheat and lie in office, only reckless to get caught and only then for as long as opinion polls say. If the polls can change, bad can become good.
It is now too late to return to the principle. If Tory MPs sack Johnson they should give a reason, and if the offense is dishonesty they should describe the lie. Where does it end? It is the stray thread that cannot be pulled out for fear of undoing all the sloppy weaving. Perhaps there are enough conservatives who have the courage to do so, if not for this scandal, at least for the next one. Johnson certainly can’t be humbled by the resignation, but that shamelessness is contagious. It is the source of resilience that makes the Conservatives believe that their current leader has powers that no other candidate could match. And once they indulge in that thought, they become unable to judge whether a prime minister’s lack of conscience is a reason to fire him or support him.