Thursday, December 8

Here’s the question to define this sorry era: Truss or Johnson, which is worse? | Julian Baggini

EITHERne reason Boris Johnson hung on for so long, when it was obvious he was a brazen liar, is that no one had a good answer to the question of who should replace him. Many a reprobate has profited from the principle of “better the devil you know”.

Those who warned us that the alternatives to Johnson could have been even worse are probably feeling quite smug now. Kwasi Kwarteng’s brutal special fiscal operation has confirmed that the policies of Truss’s government are far worse than those of her predecessor.

Analysis by the Resolution Foundation suggests the richest 5% are the only people who are going to be better off as a result. In contrast, under Johnson the tax burden was set to rise more for the rich than the poor. Rishi Sunak’s plan to fund social care was inadequate but at least he tried to address the funding crisis. Now the levy scheduled to fund social care has been scrapped and we’re back to no plan at all. Even if you don’t care about equality and social justice, almost all economists think Kwarteng’s mini-budget is disastrous for the economy.

On top of all this, the government is planning to repeal EU wildlife, river, clean air and food standards without any commitment to replacing them with equally strong alternatives. Truss also plans to abolish green levies on energy bills, stymieing investment in renewable energy. And from her strong anti-immigration stance from her to her embrace of the culture war, which promises a nastier, more divisive Britain, the list goes on.

Johnson’s flaws begin to look like virtues when contrasted with his replacement. He had no moral compass and was only interested in his own self-aggrandisement of him, and as a result he aimed to please, steering him away from extremes. This made him a terrible leader, but arguably not as bad as one who has a clear but dangerous ideology. Truss has a moral compass – pointing slightly to the right of Hades. Which would you prefer: the most shambolic and inconsistent government of modern times or the most economically rightwing?

Despite this dismal situation, we who called for Johnson to go were not wrong. His flaws went deeper than policy. His disdain of him for the processes of democratic government poisoned the body politic. When a government knowingly and voluntarily breaks the law, ignores legal advice, repeatedly misleads parliament and lies to the people, it crosses a red line. The worst policies can be reversed, but damage to the integrity of politics itself can be fatally wounded.

It is simply intolerable to have a prime minister so obviously lacking in moral fibre. If Johnson had been allowed to go on, he would have encouraged others to draw the conclusion that the electorate does not care about principles, as long as their leader is charismatic and promises all things to all people. Many countries have provided cautionary tales of what happens when people excuse abuses of power because they believe rulers are more effective than the alternatives. Look at how the rule of law has been seriously eroded by Viktor Orbán in Hungary and Andrzej Duda in Poland, as well as in the world’s largest democracy, India, by Narendra Modi. The arc of history can be bent in more than one direction.

But what if Truss turns out not only to be differently bad, but a match for Johnson in her disregard for truth and due process? She has after all signaled that she is prepared to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol and she also has scant regard for the United Nations Convention on Refugees. Her government’s first budget de ella avoided being called what it is because she ignored the requirement for it to be examined by the Office for Budget Responsibility.

If we had known that Johnson would be replaced with someone possessing all the same vices and more, that could have been a reason to have eased off on the pressure for him to resign and waited for the opportunity to remove the Conservatives from government at the next election. But back in June when we were calling him for his head, we knew no such thing. Political choices cannot be made in hindsight.

The mere possibility that a replacement could be worse cannot be a good reason to keep a discredited leader in office. The uncomfortable truth is that in politics, you don’t always get what you want or expect – but if you give incumbents almost unlimited benefit of the doubt, you never will. And because not everything is within our control, or foreseeable, sometimes the right choice leads to worse outcomes. Truss may be doing her best for her to make Johnson look good in comparison, but it was still right to call for him to go.

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