Boris Johnson and the prophet Hosea’s wisdom for the future of U.K. politics
The first reading for Mass on July 6, from Hosea, seemed tailor-made for what was arguably the most bizarre and constitutionally perilous 36 hours in U.K. political history. The previous day, two of the leading members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet had resigned, unleashing a river of further resignations. People had the right to expect government to be conducted “properly, competently and seriously,” wrote the chancellor of the exchequer, Rishi Sunak, in a damning letter; the government’s problems and scandals “start at the top” and “that’s not going to change,” the health secretary, Sajid Javid, told Parliament, adding: “Enough is enough.”
It was. By the next day more than 50 ministers and aides had stood down. Britain was effectively lacking a government. Hosea’s words rang out: “Samaria has had her day/ Her king is like a straw drifting on water.”
“Sow integrity for yourselves,” urges Hosea. Right now in the U.K., that feels like the most urgent political task.
Yet Johnson was determined to stay on, sacking a minister, appointing others and issuing defiant statements. He made clear he saw the thumping 80-seat majority he had won in December 2019 as a personal mandate to press on. Suddenly the airwaves were full of talk of a “Trump moment” in British politics, a “constitutional crisis” that threatened to embroil the Queen.
The constitution is nowhere set down, but is instead made up of gentlemen’s agreements and conventions that have evolved over centuries. The prime minister is not elected directly by the people, but by the M.P.s of the party he or she belongs to. The party that following a general election can form a working majority becomes the government, and the party leader is the prime minister. He or she serves at the behest of the party’s M.P.s, who can organize a vote of no-confidence in the leader and elect a new one, essentially changing the prime minister. This is what happened in July 2019, when Johnson replaced Theresa May. He then called the election the following December that delivered his majority for the Conservatives.
For Johnson now to claim that this gave him some kind of personal mandate to rule notwithstanding his party was both novel and absurd. It was not he who won the 2019 election, but the more than 350 Conservative Party M.P.s. It had been Johnson’s campaign promise to “Get Brexit Done”—together with horror at the prospect of Labour’s hapless candidate, Jeremy Corbyn—that had delivered the largest share of Conservative seats since Margaret Thatcher. Yet two and a half years later Johnson was the main reason that the support had drained away. Covid had been poorly handled. The Northern Ireland border muddle meant Brexit was not done. The cost of living was spiraling. The rail workers were on strike, the airports in chaos. There appeared to be no vision, no direction. But it was above all doubts about the prime minister’s integrity that had turned people against him. They had laughed with him once, in on the joke; now they felt he was laughing at them.
Boris Johnson may not have been Trump or Bolsonaro, but he fits the definition of Moses Naim’s “new autocrats.”
The report by a senior civil servant into partying during the Covid lockdown in No. 10, Downing Street, with its accounts of drunken brawls and wine-spattered walls, brought a fresh wave of disgust. But it wasn’t just the hypocrisy, the perception that there was “one rule for them, another for us,” nor only that Johnson was fined by police and “presided over a culture of casual law-breaking,” in the words of a one-time ally, the Conservative M.P. Jesse Norman. It was now clear to everyone that the prime minister was willing to say anything to stay in power, brazenly claiming to Parliament that he had been shocked and sickened to discover that parties had taken place, when all the time he had been at them himself.
A no-confidence vote in early June showed four out of ten Conservative M.P.s wanted him gone. After humiliating election defeats in late June in constituencies that had voted Conservative in 2019, most of the party’s remaining M.P.s reached the same conclusion. Yet his cabinet still stood by him. In the end, it was revelations that Johnson had appointed as his deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, a man whom, it turned out, he knew to be a “groper”—a sexual predator—that finally provoked Sunak and Javid. Johnson had yet again lied about what he knew, and yet again sent his ministers out to the TV studios to repeat those lies. In one of his best parliamentary performances, the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the string of resignations was “the first case of sinking ships fleeing the rat.”
By Thursday morning Johnson finally accepted he could not, after all, “press on.” Unable to fill ministerial vacancies and knowing that his party would soon arrange another no-confidence vote that this time would succeed, he announced he was standing down as leader in a speech that repeated his claim of a presidential mandate and that blamed “the herd instinct” in Westminster for his ouster.
Johnson will stay as prime minister until the party has completed the election of his successor in August. According to the rules of the “1922 committee,” which runs the leadership election, M.P.s will now hold a series of hustings to whittle down the 15 or so candidates to just two. Then, unless one drops out, the two candidates will be put to the party’s members across the country, who will vote to decide which of them is to be leader. Thus about 150,000 people—almost all white, prosperous and elderly—will in effect decide who is the next prime minister.
And as a master of post-truth, Johnson constantly muddied the waters.
That election process, like much else, is now under scrutiny. Most people imagine that in Britain prime ministers are elected and leave office through general elections, but the last one of whom that was true was Ted Heath 50 years ago. Many are asking how the U.K.’s party-based elections allowed Johnson—a driven, brilliant man, whose narcissism and patent flaws made him singularly unsuited for high office—to reach the top. The answer is, at least partly, that an unwritten constitution is vulnerable. It assumes that people have a feeling for the conventions that underpin it. Johnson did not, and was able ruthlessly to exploit it. As the constitutional expert and Catholic peer Lord Hennessy put it: “So many of the probities in public life and proper procedures of government depend on the person at the top being a ‘good chap’ (of either sex),” whereas Johnson “is not a man driven by public service. He is the most dramatic example we have ever had of a vanity prime minister.”
What we have learned, through the tumult since the Brexit referendum in 2016 and especially these past three years, culminating in those dangerous 36 hours last week, was that the U.K.’s political constitution lacks the resilience to resist a rogue.
Johnson may not have been Trump or Bolsonaro, but he fits the definition of Moses Naim’s “new autocrats” who make use of the three Ps: populism, polarization and post-truth. Through the three Ps Johnson made Brexit, and Brexit made Johnson. As a populist, he sought to exploit rather than solve the tensions over Brexit in the Conservative Party; as a polarizer, he used Brexit as a wedge issue to hollow out the party, expelling 21 moderate M.P.s, and insisting on a “hard” Brexit that has since caused no end of economic and political turmoil. And as a master of post-truth, he constantly muddied the waters to the point where it was almost impossible to work out what was true from what was false—beginning with Johnson’s obviously false claims in the referendum that Turkey was poised to join the European Union and that membership cost the U.K. £350 million a week.
It was the mendacity that in the end did him in, and it was Britain’s anonymous, high-minded civil servants—not the party’s M.P.s—who played the role of Nemesis. First was Sue Gray, the second permanent secretary tasked with investigating “Partygate,” whose painstaking report in May laid bare the entitled, chaotic culture Johnson created in Downing Street and triggered the resignation of the prime minister’s ethics adviser, sick of being lied to. The second was Lord McDonald, permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office at the time of the previous complaint in 2019 against Pincher. Moved to “act out of my duty towards the victims,” his tweeted letter blew a hole in No. 10’s fabrications, and triggered Johnson’s fall.
Gray and McDonald reminded us of the spirit of public service on which the U.K.’s constitution depends. One could argue that because that spirit prevailed, the constitution in the end proved robust, repelling the straw-on-the-water king.
But it felt too close for comfort. “Sow integrity for yourselves,” urges Hosea. Right now in the U.K., that feels like the most urgent political task.