The Disgrace of Boris Johnson


 

The British press first reported on allegations on 30 November 2021 that Number 10 Downing Street had held numerous parties and social gatherings in contravention of the lockdowns and restrictions throughout 2020 and 2021. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson initially denied these allegations in the House of Commons on 8 December 2021, saying: “I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no covid rules were broken.”[1] The press later discovered that several parties had taken place at Downing Street during the lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, including one the night before the state funeral of Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, and that Johnson himself had attended some of them.[2] He pled his innocence through the absurd statement, “Nobody told me, ‘this is an event that’s against the rules.’”[3] This, in turn, gave rise to the claim that Johnson had lied to the House of Commons on 8 December 2021. And unlike in Canada, the British have always taken lying to the House of Commons as a serious offence. Ministers who lied to the House of Commons must resign. The Ministerial Code, maintained by the Cabinet Office, has made this convention official: “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister.”[4] This same standard should apply to the Prime Minister as well.

In Prime Minister’s Questions on 19 January 2022, David Davis, a former cabinet minister who served as Brexit Secretary under Theresa May, rose from the Conservative backbenches to deliver an embittered salvo against Boris Johnson. Davis supported Leave and Johnson himself. He said:

“Like many of these benches, I’ve spent weeks and months defending the Prime Minister against often angry constituents. I reminded them of his success in delivering Brexit […] and on many other things. But I expect my leaders to shoulder the responsibility for the actions they take. Yesterday, he did the opposite of that. So I’ll remind him of a quotation altogether too familiar to him of Leo Amery to Neville Chamberlain. ‘You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go.’”[5]

Amery might, in turn, have taken that quote from Oliver Cromwell. This call for Johnson’s resignation came not from some disaffected former Remainer or from the Opposition but from a Conservative MP and recent former cabinet minister who had supported Leave during the Referendum in 2016 as well as Johnson’s terms for Brexit in 2019-2020. Johnson – a keen student of history who has written several books over the years in addition to his innumerable newspaper columns – implausibly claimed that he “didn’t know” whom the honourable member was quoting. He put that infamous “Johnson Waffle” on full display in his response, blustering his way through mendacious retorts in that ridiculous, caricatural, and plummy Received Pronunciation which makes him sound like Jeremy Clarkson doing his impression of James May:

“I must say to the Right Honourable Gentleman, I don’t know what he’s talking about. But what I can tell him – I don’t know what quotation he’s alluding to – but what I can tell him, and I think that I have told this House repeatedly, throughout this pandemic, I take full responsibility for everything done in this government and throughout the pandemic.”[6]

In other words, Johnson lied to the House here as well. It is inconceivable that Johnson did not recognise Davis’s quote, especially since Davis said that he was quoting Leopold Stennett Amery on Neville Chamberlain, and given that he himself joined the multitude of Churchill biographers in 2014.[7]

Even the outer cabinet has started to lose confidence in Johnson. On 24 January, Lord Agnew, a junior minister for counter-fraud, resigned during a speech to the House of Lords in protest over massive fraud in government contracts during the pandemic. Agnew insisted that his resignation had nothing to do with Johnson’s personal conduct, but that denial strains credulity to the breaking point:

“It is my deeply held conviction that the current state of affairs is not acceptable. Given that I’m the Minister for Counter-Fraud, it feels somehow dishonest to stay on in that role if I’m incapable of doing it properly, let alone defending our track record. It is for this reason that I’ve sadly decided to tender my resignation as a minister across the Treasury and Cabinet Office with immediate effect. […]. It is worth saying that none of this relates to far more dramatic political events playing out across Westminster. This is not an attack on the prime minister, and I am sorry for the inconvenience it will cause. […] I hope that as a virtually unknown minister beyond this place, giving up my career might prompt others more important beyond me to get behind this and sort it out.”[8] 

Other Conservative MPs have continued to question Johnson’s integrity and fitness openly in the House of Commons, including his predecessor, former Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May. The House fell unusually quiet on 31 January 2022 when Theresa May asked:

“What the Grey Report does show is that Number 10 Downing Street was not observing the regulations that they had imposed on members of the public. So either my Right Honourable friend has not read the rules, or didn’t understand what they meant, and others around him, or they didn’t think that the rules applied to them. Which was it?”[9]

Boris Johnson responded with more characteristic dissembling bluster:

“No, that is not what the Gray report says. [Interruption.] It is not what the Gray report says, but I suggest that my right hon. Friend waits to see the conclusion of the inquiry.”[10]

Even Johnson’s “apologies” show little contrition and no true remorse. He evades responsibility in either the first-person plural or the passive voice and then couches even these weak musings in petulant denials, such as his statement to the House of Commons on 31 January 2022:

“I will address its findings in this statement – but firstly I want to say: sorry. Sorry for the things we simply did not get right and sorry for the way that this matter has been handled. It is no use saying that this or that was within the rules. It is no use saying that people were working hard.”[11]

He diffuses responsibility with “We simply did not get right”, instead of “I made a mistake.” He cloaks his personal involvement in this scandal with the passive voice, saying, “The way that this matter has been handled” – not “the way in which I handled this matter.”

Britons sacrificed much during these lockdowns. Testimonials have poured forth since December 2021 of those who could not visit their dying relatives one last time or even hold proper funerals for their loved ones – including from some Members of the House of Commons on both sides. Johnson’s cute evasions and cavalier dissembling have deeply wounded a people who pride themselves above all on respect for the rule of law. Britons stubbornly adhere to laws which parliament has duly enacted or which ministers who command the confidence of the House of Commons have implemented, even when they disagree with those laws or rules. But Johnson regards such pedestrian concerns as beneath him; he has made a mockery of the enormous sacrifices which Britons made in 2020 and 2021 and taken his compatriots for fools and suckers. He never took the rules seriously, so why should anyone else have? He now faces the wrath and resentment of a whole country. It is bitterly ironic that a man who models himself on Winston Churchill, the point of imitating the cadence of his speech and his bulldog physicality in front of the cameras, failed so spectacularly to capture the Dunkirk Spirit and would instead drown it in boozy parties.

Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition and the Labour Party, admonished Johnson and his non-apology apology and succinctly captured the mood of the nation in his rebuke:

Over the last two years, the British public have been asked to make the most heart-wrenching sacrifices—a collective trauma endured by all, enjoyed by none. Funerals have been missed, dying relatives have been unvisited. Every family has been marred by what we have been through. And revelations about the Prime Minister’s behaviour have forced us all to rethink and relive those darkest moments. Many have been overcome by rage, by grief and even by guilt. Guilt that because they stuck to the law, they did not see their parents one last time. Guilt that because they did not bend the rules, their children went months without seeing friends. Guilt that because they did as they were asked, they did not go and visit lonely relatives. But people should not feel guilty. They should feel pride in themselves and their country, because by abiding by those rules they have saved the lives of people they will probably never meet. They have shown the deep public spirit and the love and respect for others that has always characterised this nation at its best.

Our national story about covid is one of a people who stood up when they were tested, but that will be forever tainted by the behaviour of this Conservative Prime Minister. By routinely breaking the rules he set, Toggle showing location of the Prime Minister took us all for fools. He held people’s sacrifice in contempt. He showed himself unfit for office.

The Prime Minister’s desperate denials since he was exposed have only made matters worse. Rather than come clean, every step of the way, he has insulted the public’s intelligence. Now he has finally fallen back on his usual excuse: it is everybody’s fault but his. They go; he stays. Even now, he is hiding behind a police investigation into criminality in his home and his office.

The Prime Minister gleefully treats what should be a mark of shame as a welcome shield, but the British public are not fools. They never believed a word of it. They think that the Prime Minister should do the decent thing and resign. Of course, he will not, because he is a man without shame. Just as he has done throughout the life, he has damaged everyone and everything around him along the way. His colleagues have spent weeks defending the indefensible, touring the TV studios, parroting his absurd denials, degrading themselves and their offices, fraying the bond of trust between the Government and the public, eroding our democracy and the rule of law.

Margaret Thatcher once said:

“The first duty of Government is to uphold the law. If it tries to bob and weave and duck around that duty when its inconvenient…then so will the governed”.

To govern this country is an honour, not a birthright. It is an act of service to the British people, not the keys to a court to parade to friends. It requires honesty, integrity and moral authority. I cannot tell hon. Members how many times people have said to me that this Prime Minister’s lack of integrity is somehow “priced in”—that his behaviour and character do not matter. I have never accepted that and I never will.

Whatever people’s politics, whatever party they vote for, honesty and decency matter. Our great democracy depends on them. Cherishing and nurturing British democracy is what it means to be patriotic. There are Conservative Members who know that, and they know that the Prime Minister is incapable of it. The question that they must now ask themselves is what they are going to do about it.

Conservative Members can heap their reputation, the reputation of their party, and the reputation of this country on the bonfire that is the Prime Minister’s leadership, or they can spare the country a Prime Minister totally unworthy of his responsibilities. It is their duty to do so. They know better than anyone how unsuitable he is for high office. Many of them knew in their hearts that we would inevitably come to this one day and they know that, as night follows day, continuing his leadership will mean further misconduct, cover-up and deceit. Only they can end this farce. The eyes of the country are upon them. They will be judged by the decisions they take now. [12]

Boris Johnson has become the devalued prime minister of a devalued government.

Notes

[1] Boris Johnson (Prime Minister), “Oral Answers,” in House of Commons: Official Report – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), volume 705, no. 87, Wednesday, 8 December 2021, column 372.

[2] BBC News, Downing Street Parties: Why UK PM Boris Johnson Is Facing Calls to Quit,” 19 January 2022.

[3] Esther Webber, “Boris Johnson Claims ‘Nobody Told Me’ Garden Party Broke COVID Rules,” Politico, 18 January 2022.

[4] United Kingdom. Cabinet Office, Ministerial Code (London: Crown Copyright, August 2019), at 1.3 (c) on page 1.

[5] David Davis, “Oral Answers” in House of Commons: Official Report – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), volume 707, no. 103, Wednesday, 19 January 2022, column 330.

[6] Boris Johnson (Prime Minister), “Oral Answers” in House of Commons: Official Report – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), volume 707, no. 103, Wednesday, 19 January 2022, column 330.

[7] Boris Johnson, The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014).

[8] Lord Agnew of Oulton (Minister of State, Cabinet Office and the Treasury), “Coronavirus Grant Schemes: Fraud,” in House of Lords: Official Report – Parliament Debates (Hansard), volume 818, no. 105, Monday, 24 January 2022, column 21.

[9] Theresa May (Member for Maidenhead), “Sue Grey Report,” Hansard, 58th Parliament, 2nd session, Monday, 31 January 2022, column 27.

[10] Boris Johnson (Prime Minister), “Sue Grey Report,” Hansard, 58th Parliament, 2nd session, Monday, 31 January 2022, column 27.

[11] Boris Johnson (Prime Minister), “Sue Grey Report,” in House of Commons: Official Report – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), volume 708, no. 111, Monday, 31 January 2022, column 23.

[12] Sir Kier Starmer (Leader of the Opposition), “Sue Grey Report,” in House of Commons: Official Report – Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), volume 708, no. 111, Monday, 31 January 2022, column 24.

About J.W.J. Bowden

My area of academic expertise lies in Canadian political institutions, especially the Crown, political executive, and conventions of Responsible Government; since 2011, I have made a valuable contribution to the scholarship by having been published and cited extensively. I’m also a contributing editor to the Dorchester Review and a member of the editorial board of the Journal of Parliamentary and Political Law.
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1 Response to The Disgrace of Boris Johnson

  1. PierreB says:

    Nicely written. Who knows, perhaps Canadian MPs might take note.

    Like

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