Sunday, February 25

Boris Johnson clings to office like chewing gum to a shoe but he is becoming unstuck | Andrew Rawnsley

Boris Johnson once explained his desire to go into politics by saying: “They don’t put up statues to journalists.”

I’m doubtful that anyone other than himself is planning one, but his place in history is definitely set in stone. He has earned the dismal distinction of being both the first prime minister to have been given a criminal sanction while in office and the first to be placed under investigation for contempt of parliament. After being fined by the police for breaking the life-or-death laws he himself introduced to curb Covid, the privileges committee will adjudicate on his repeated false denials to the Commons. Britain has had some dicey leaders before, but no previous incumbent has generated such a double-whammy of disgraces, either of which would have impelled the resignation of any of his predecessors.

Rather than moving out, he wants everyone else to move on. But there can be no moving on from this scandal as a matter of principle and practice. His misconduct by him goes to the heart of the integrity of our politics. Can a law-breaker be the country’s chief law-maker? And can a prime minister who has repeatedly and flagrantly misled parliament remain in office? Every day that they allow him to stay there, Tory MPs are choosing to say yes to both those questions. By doing so, the supposed party of law and order makes itself complicit in serious offenses that have always previously been regarded as automatic grounds for removal, poisons the public trust in our democracy and sets an atrocious precedent.

To be fair to the Conservatives, some of them are greatly troubled that they are led by a rogue prime minister. The Tory ranks contain people with a moral compass who still attach importance to standards in public life. Their voice was expressed by David Wolfson when he resigned as a justice minister, saying the government can only “credibly defend democratic norms abroad, especially at a time of war in Europe, if we are, and are seen to be, resolutely committed both to the observance of the law and also to the rule of law”.

It is also fair to say that plenty of Tory MPs lose not a wink of sleep over the principles at stake. Otherwise, Mr Johnson would be long gone, rather than clinging on to Number 10 like a grubby piece of chewing gum stuck to the sole of the shoe of the constitution. Yet even those Tory MPs who share his disdain for ethical standards must worry that this is not going away. It is reported that the police have started to issue penalty charge notices for the notorious “bring your own booze” party at Number 10 organized by the prime minister’s private secretary. That’s the one Mr Johnson claims he attended because he mistook a garden packed with people chugging alcohol for a “work event”. As I write, we ca n’t be sure whether or not a second fine is coming his way from him.

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The latest batch of police penalties come on top of the 50 fines for offenses against Covid safeguards already slapped on the denizens of Downing Street. I have seen no evidence to contradict the assertion that this makes Number 10 the most law-breaking address in the kingdom. And the police have yet to announce their verdict on many of the other Downing Street booze-ups during the pandemic, several of which Mr Johnson is known to have attended. His cynical calculation of him throughout has been that time will be his savior of him. He has assumed that he can blag and bluster his way through this tawdry saga until people become exhausted with it.

Time is now turning into his enemy as it dawns on Tory MPs that they will get no respite from this scandal so long as he remains at Number 10. One groaned to me: “It’s never going to end, is it?” Even Johnson loyalists shudder at the prospect of further tranches of police ends triggering further waves of visceral public anger. One recent opinion poll indicates that less than a tenth of voters think he has not lied about partygate. “The longer this goes on, the more the stain spreads to all of us,” observes one senior Tory. A particularly severe anxiety in the prime minister’s circle is how people will react if they get sight of the many photos of Downing Street drinking while people were dying. For headline writers and opposition parties, partygate is the gift that keeps on giving. For the Tory party, it is the shame that just keeps growing.

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One result is that fewer and fewer of his MPs are willing to act as the prime minister’s human shields by humiliating themselves on his behalf. That was demonstrated during the shenanigans over the reference to the privileges committee. Number 10’s terribly misjudged attempt to stymie an investigation had to be abandoned in the face of a rebellion by Tory MPs fearful of being accused of complicity in a cover-up. When it came to the debate, just one Conservative MP, the prime minister’s former political secretary Danny Kruger, was willing to offer unqualified support while a succession of opposition speakers described Mr Johnson as a law-breaking liar. Never has a prime minister looked so friendly.

Tory MPs report that morale is being drained by the fury that they are encountering on the doorstep along with the psychological wear and tear of regurgitating alibis they know to be bogus. William Wragg, who made the finest of the Tory contributions to the debate, remarked: “It is utterly depressing to be asked to defend the indefensible. Each time, part of us withers.” Steve Baker is one of the Tories who has reached the end of his wither. He added his voice from him to those calling for the prime minister to go – “the gig is up” – on the grounds that he did not find his expressions of genuine repentance. Boris Johnson, insincere? Well spotted, Mr Baker. This zealot for Brexit played an instrumental role in getting Mr Johnson to Number 10 in the first place and he has a reputation as an organiser. That call for the prime minister to go is also noteworthy because it shows that the anti-Johnson MPs are not confined, as the loyalists would have it, to Remoaners and others who have always loathed him. Those who want him out are now represented on all points of the Tory spectrum.

For all that, many of them are still looking for reasons not to act. You know their excuses. Wait for the May elections, wait for the full Sue Gray report, wait to see just how many ends he gets, wait for the party conference, wait for the war in Ukraine to be over, wait while I try to grow a vertebra.

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The main explanation for their prevarication is that there is no agreed successor, a dilemma made more acute since the implosion of Rishi Sunak’s reputation robbed the Conservative party of its most obvious alternative. It is true that there is no consensus about who should take over, but then it has very often been the case in the Tory party’s history that it is not clear who will emerge as their next leader until there is a vacancy.

In 1940, a lot of Tories thought Winston Churchill would be a disastrous prime minister. It was only hindsight that made him look like the inevitable choice. Very few forecast that Margaret Thatcher would seize the crown before she challenged Ted Heath. It wasn’t obvious much in advance that Alec Douglas-Home, John Major or Theresa May would become prime minister.

The events of recent days have exposed ethical impoverishment and spineless paralysis among the Tories. The Conservative party is too scared to back its discredited leader and too scared to sack him.

Menacingly to the prime minister, many of his MPs are realizing this is unsustainable. “I think the dial has shifted. There are more of us saying we can’t go on like this,” reports one former cabinet minister. “Up with this we will not put.” Another senior Tory agrees: “More colleagues are saying anything will be better than this, anyone has to be better than Boris.”

Defenestrating him would be a step into the unknown for the Tories, but a growing band of the party’s despairing MPs are being driven to the conclusion that a leap in the dark is less perilous for them than staying debasingly bound to a doubly disgraced prime minister. No one can be sure when a critical mass of Conservative MPs will decide that enough is enough, but I have the strong sense that more of them have become reader to shove him into the ejector seat.

Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer

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