‘What on earth is going on in British politics?” That is a question that is being asked a good deal at the moment, and understandably so. A prime minister with a commanding 80-seat majority has been forced to resign for reasons that seem somewhat footling across the distance of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party—which seemed so impregnable only two years ago—is in the process of ripping itself apart in a leadership election that has signally failed to observe Ronald Reagan’s maxim that conservatives should not speak ill of one another.
The Tories have been in power for more than two-thirds of the present century, employing a combination of opportunism, ruthlessness, patriotism, monarchism and free-market economics that has tended to appeal to a generally conservative-minded electorate, to the cost of the opposition Labour and Liberal Democrat (LibDem) Parties.
The Conservatives have long been accused of putting lust for office and a desire to keep the opposition out of government far above any ideological beliefs they might have. This has generally been true, save for the premiership of Margaret Thatcher between 1979 and 1990—when a spirited foray into free-market capitalism brought three election victories before she was brought down by Cassiuses in her own party, who did not think they could win a fourth election under her leadership.
Since then, more Tory premiers have been brought down by internal party machinations than by the electorate at the ballot box. Indeed, since Thatcher, only her hapless immediate successor, John Major, was forced from the premiership by defeat at the polls. Because Major won the 1992 election only two years after Thatcher’s defenestration by her own party, the Conservatives started to believe that they could dump unpopular prime ministers and that it would help them to reset politics and become more popular.
Enter Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, who, in December 2019, won the Conservatives a fourth consecutive election victory with the largest Tory majority since 1987. Boris was greatly helped by his Labour opponent Jeremy Corbyn, whose Marxism-Leninism and barely concealed anti-Semitism made him unpalatable to British voters. But he was helped much more by the three-and-a-half years of political stasis that was the result of the British establishment’s refusing to accept the verdict of the Brexit referendum of June 2016 and then fighting a bitter rearguard campaign to stymie the will of the people as expressed in that vote for Britain to leave the European Union.
Boris took the United Kingdom out of the EU in January 2020, earning him the everlasting hatred of the establishment that had previously expressed their negative feelings for him mostly in terms of dismissive contempt. After he did what he had promised to do, those enemies dedicated themselves to finding any and every chance to bring him down. Tragically, like the Shakespearian heroes he speaks and writes about, Boris gave his detractors any number of opportunities.
The minutiae of the so-called scandals that wrecked Boris’s premiership seem so unimpressive and almost pedantic to Americans that they invite a certain amount of derision in recounting them. And on close examination, Boris often comes off better than he did when he was assaulted by the left-wing media, parliamentary attack dogs, the BBC, and a growing number of Tory MPs who feared losing their seats in the coming general election. The universal use of social media and DMs by politicians has also led to the swifter caballing of groups of the disaffected.
Although each of the “scandals” was pretty insignificant in itself, once they were woven together by Boris’s enemies into a narrative that supposedly exposed him as a serial liar, they provided the means to bring him down, despite the fact that objectively he is no more (or less) untruthful than anyone else in politics. Because he is more charismatic, higher profile, and endlessly quotable, he has been put under the microscope more minutely than any other British politician since Tony Blair, who was himself also regularly caught out in a series of fibs but who survived as prime minister for a decade.
The first of Boris’s mini-scandals came soon after taking office in 2019, when it emerged that he had accepted roughly $120,000 from the Tory peer Lord Brownlow to redecorate the frankly rather mangy flat in Downing Street in which prime ministers and their families have to live. Unlike the more American tradition first initiated by Jacqueline Kennedy (and therefore unassailable in the eyes of the East Coast elites) in which first ladies raise money from rich people to ensure their families a comfortable life in the White House, in Britain redecoration is done by the civil service, and the emphasis is on cheap utility.
In ignoring the British way, and allowing the Tory peer Lord Brownlow to pick up the tab, Boris fell afoul of various disclosure rules and also, probably more important, laid himself open to snide commentary in the papers about his and his attractive and charming wife Carrie’s taste in wallpaper and soft furnishings. The combination of snobbery and investigative reporting over the cost proved combustible.
Similarly, when Boris decided to spend the Christmas holidays of 2019 at a friend’s villa on the Caribbean island of Mustique, he reported the visit incorrectly in the House of Commons register of members’ interests. He was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing by the parliamentary standards committee, but not before a slavering press had printed endless photos of him in his Bermuda shorts enjoying the kind of holiday that most Britons could not afford, thus inflaming the envy politics and class resentment that are sadly never far below the surface of British public life.
In October 2021 Owen Patterson, a Tory MP, was found to have breached paid advocacy rules by a House of Commons select committee and was sentenced to a 30-day suspension. This had nothing to do with Boris, but at a dinner of former Daily Telegraph leader-writers at the Garrick Club the next month, he was persuaded by friends of Patterson that he should delay Patterson’s suspension and set up a new committee for disciplining MPs. No fewer than 13 Tory MPs voted against the measure, however, while 97 abstained or were absent. Boris wasted precious political capital in a quixotic campaign for Patterson, who nonetheless resigned his hitherto safe Tory seat of North Shropshire. When it was won by the Liberal Democrats in a by-election on December 16, 2021, the loss sent shockwaves through the Tory members of parliament.
The next scandal was far more serious—but without the prior problems it could have been safely ignored and would not have led to Boris’s downfall. Again, it was Christmas festivities that proved the catalyst. In November 2021, the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror newspaper reported that during Christmas 2020, parties had been held in Downing Street while Britain was in the strict lockdown that Boris and the medical authorities had ordained at the time of the Covid outbreak. It was a terrible political error for Boris to have made, and one from which his own political antennae, as well as his cabinet secretary Simon Case and other senior Downing Street staff, ought to have protected him.
Humorous memes abounded depicting Boris dancing and partying to disco music, which were shared millions of times across a country that at least claimed to have itself observed the minutiae of every lockdown rule throughout the national emergency. Church of England bishops (most of whom support Labour or the LibDems fairly overtly) denounced the prime minister, while rumors abounded over the extent of the partying. In the end, the police uncovered 20 parties, with Boris having been personally present at four.
There were several extenuating circumstances that got completely ignored in the journalistic feeding frenzy. The first was that Boris had himself only narrowly escaped death from Covid and had been placed on a ventilator in St. Thomas’s Hospital in April 2020; anyone can be forgiven for raising a glass of Champagne after surviving such a life-or-death experience. Second, these parties were entirely unlike the smart social occasions depicted by some Labour politicians who tried to conjure up scenes reminiscent of Oxford’s upper-class white-tie Bullingdon Club (of which Boris had been a member in the 1980s).
In fact, the Downing Street occasions were parties not for Tory MPs and Boris’s friends but for civil servants, and several of them consisted of people drinking warm white wine and eating cheese at their desks. Boris—who is not a party animal any longer in any case—considered most of these “leaving do’s” given for departing colleagues as work events, essentially as part of his job.
But this perfectly reasonable excuse was excoriated by a media that smelled his blood in the water, and the phrase “work event” took on a satirical hue, to mean gigantic all-night raves. The one genuine party that had taken place—during which civil servants got drunk, threw up, started fights, and damaged furniture—happened when Boris was not even at Downing Street. None was the kind of party that any normal person would have wanted to attend, but the fact of them opened Boris up to the egalitarian whinge from his detractors that “there’s one law for us and another law for him.”
When the police investigated the actual law-breaking, they concluded that Boris needed to pay only the $120 “fixed-penalty notice” for his anti-lockdown transgressions, the bare minimum applicable. But the damage had been done; a sitting prime minister had been officially found to have broken the law. Boris’s earlier assurance to the House of Commons that no parties had taken place is being investigated by the committee on standards in public life, which is chaired by a long-term Labour opponent of his. It will doubtless dismiss his response that to say farewell to a colleague on his retirement from Downing Street was work-related and took place in his office (which is also his home) and thus not genuinely a party in the normal sense of one.
During and after Partygate, a constant drip-drip of further revelations about Boris was provided to the media by Dominic Cummings, a political mastermind whom Boris had sacked as his top adviser in November 2020 after a bitter row about Downing Street personnel. Cummings’s Substack posts, which were based on his well-archived inside knowledge of working with Boris since the Brexit campaign, proved instrumental in destabilizing Johnson with a stream of embarrassing revelations from the heart of government. Once considered a Svengali figure, Cummings morphed into Iago. Intent on Boris’s downfall, Cummings achieved his aim in little more than 18 months from his sacking.
Conservative Party rules allow for a vote against their leader if a mere 15 percent of MPs secretly write to a party official demanding one, and this number was reached just before the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in the spring. On June 6, 2022, Boris won the vote by 211 to 148, with a mere 58 percent of the parliamentary party supporting him. Seventeen days later the Conservatives suffered two devastating by-election defeats, one to Labour at Wakefield and one to the LibDems at Tiverton. These followed the revelation of appalling behavior by Tory MPs, one of whom was caught watching pornography on his cellphone in the Commons chamber and another of whom was found guilty of child sexual assault. (It’s a truism of British politics that Tory scandals tend to revolve around sex and Labour ones around money, while the LibDems are ambidextrous.)
The immediate cause of Boris’s fall was somewhat banal, as is often the case in great events. A Tory MP named Geoffrey Pincher was caught groping two men at a party in the Carlton, a club on St. James’s Street in central London. It emerged that he had been appointed as deputy chief whip after Boris had been informed in 2019 that Pincher had been accused of similar predatory behavior, although on that occasion the allegation was unsubstantiated. (Boris is famously free of any discrimination regarding homosexuality.)
When Boris denied any memory of the warning having been given—it had been three years earlier, after all—a former civil servant went public to say that the premier had definitely been told. Cummings recalled Boris quipping “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” at the time, which further undermined Boris’s claim. On July 5, Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Finance Minister Rishi Sunak both resigned from the Cabinet, prompting no fewer than 57 more resignations from the government, and eventually that of Boris himself from the Tory leadership two days later.
The man who had saved Britain from a Corbyn government, who had finally delivered Brexit, who had rolled out a successful Covid vaccine faster than any other country except Israel, who had brought about the lowest unemployment figures for half a century, and who had been the first Western leader to deliver lethal aid to Ukraine and to champion Volodymyr Zelensky had been ousted only two and a half years after winning a historic landslide election victory.
It was all done constitutionally of course, this being Britain, but it’s hard to avoid the whiff of a coup. As for the Labourites, they have reason to delight that the man they most feared is—for the moment at least—no more.
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