It is Boris Johnson’s second anniversary as Prime Minister and we are now well aware of his shortcomings. We met them when he took office. Is not telling the truth. It does not seem capable of maintaining a political principle. Prioritize personal interest over national. He is willing to foment division if it helps him politically. It does not respect the rules of public life. It lacks the intellectual capacity to offer good government.
It doesn’t make much sense to go over each of these qualities again. We understand them well and daily provide new evidence for them. What is more pertinent is how others respond to his presence at the top of government. How does the system react? How do people treat it? Is their behavior isolated or normalized? Will it be seen as something specific to the period in which we live or will it come to define the way the country operates?
Yesterday provided an example. Labor MP Dawn Butler stood up in the Commons and listed many of the cases where Johnson has misled parliament. He had “lied to the House and to the country over and over again,” he said.
It was followed by all the usual mess and nonsense of modern political life. The clip went viral, Butler made the most of it, people demanded the BBC to cover it when they already had. Standard noise. But once you got through all of that, a deep constitutional question arose.
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Two principles had come into conflict. For one thing, cheating the House is supposed to be a serious charge. It was once the kind of thing you would quit, or at least apologize for. But while Butler’s examples are well documented, that has not happened.
On the other hand, parliamentary rules state that MPs cannot accuse each other of lying in the House of Commons. So when Butler delivered his speech, it was clear what would follow. They told him to recant. She rejected it. She was expelled.
What is the difference? Why did one principle stand while the other fell? It is because one is directly enforceable by the Speaker and the other is not. If one MP accuses another MP of lying, the Speaker must intervene. But the rule of cheating the House is much weaker. It is a convention.
That’s in the ministerial code, which states that “ministers who deliberately mislead parliament will be expected to resign to the prime minister.” But the ministerial code is at the discretion of the prime minister. Decide if it has been violated and if it should be investigated and how to do it. He decides the outcome. So it goes without saying that he doesn’t apply it to himself. And even when it comes to his ministers, like Priti Patel last year, he chooses not to enforce it.
This led us to what we saw yesterday. It was a grotesque reversal of natural justice. The person who misleads parliament can escape any consequences. The person who points it out is censored. This is the result that the system has generated: the one who lies gets away with it, while the one who tells 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 he can be given the power to regulate himself and others. This was always a silly idea: scrutiny and constitutional restraint should be proportional to the executive branch, not inversely proportional to it. But now it is disastrous, because it gives someone without moral stature the ability to escape from all the consequences.
Johnson has armed the freedom that the system has granted him. In that sense, despite his public warfare, he is identical to Dominic Cummings. They were both willing to break any convention or principle to get what they wanted: to lie, illegally suspend Parliament, destroy Britain’s commercial integrity, destroy the peace process, eradicate the rules of public life, hand out contracts to their peers, aspire get cash to redecorate your floor, fixing regulatory issues by text message. This is what they do. Cummings is proud of it. Johnson pretends he isn’t. It comes out the same.
A similar process applies to the people within the system. We all have a responsibility when we see basic principles deteriorate. We can hold the line or we can tolerate change. If it is the latter, those principles really cease to operate as functional elements of political life.
Of course, if you are in a different political party, this all becomes much easier. You condemn it, it is in your interest. But even if you are in the same party, it is easy to condemn when the behavior is unpopular. This is why so many Conservative MPs found their moral principles during the Barnard de Cummings Castle debacle. It wasn’t really outrage. It was that he was so demonstrably unpopular and dangerous to his own fortunes.
In Johnson’s case, many high-level conservative figures have none of these incentives. They are in his party and he is still popular with his target demographic, so they have no incentive to challenge him.
This applies to entire sectors of the Conservative parliamentary party. They know you are not fit for work. Presumably many are aware that their mismanagement of the pandemic has cost tens of thousands of lives. But as long as you can make a compelling case that makes it easy for them to keep their seats, they will support you.
Right-wing journalists and commentators follow the same pattern. They are aware that all the rules are being destroyed. If a Labor prime minister did, they would rightly be outraged. But it is not, so they are not.
The question about Johnson’s moral character is answered by referring to something else entirely: his popular support. It is equivalent to someone asking you if you liked a movie and you reply that it was very popular. That was not the question. Some things matter regardless of whether other people like them.
That political and journalistic approval, or rather, the cynical shift of the debate to exclude moral judgment, works to normalize Johnson’s behavior. The effect of this is not limited to what is happening today. It will impact what happens in the future, by opening the space for subsequent prime ministers to ignore the standards of public life, precisely in the way that Johnson has. It takes a seemingly standards-based system and replaces it with a system whose only principle is that it can get away with it.
That is Johnson’s main achievement after two years in power. And it’s really very disreputable.