His cardinal sin is to have forgotten the core tenet of the rule of law: those who make the rules are bound by them.
The UK prime minister Boris Johnson, the enfant terrible of British politics, is embroiled in a very British scandal. As in the recent eponymous BBC television miniseries based on the infamous 1963 Argyll v Argyll case, at stake is a high-profile divorce. But, this time, the potential split is political. And Johnson’s supposed Teflon shield finally shows signs of wearing thin.
On January 31st, a report by the civil servant Sue Gray highlighted ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ regarding gatherings that took place at 10 Downing Street at a time when Johnson’s government was imposing stringent Covid-19 restrictions on the rest of the country. Gray’s report was referred for further investigation by the Metropolitan Police.
Under scrutiny are at least 12 ‘wine and cake’ gatherings, several of which Johnson is known to have attended. In the wake of the revelations, more than a dozen Conservative members of Parliament have submitted letters of no confidence in Johnson (54 such letters would trigger a formal vote of no confidence among Tory MPs). In addition, five of the prime minister’s key aides—including his longstanding confidante Munira Mirza, often called ‘Boris’s brain’—have quit. Calls for Johnson to go are growing louder.
No stranger to controversy
Johnson is, to say the least, no stranger to controversy. He has previously said that Muslim women wearing burkas look like ‘letter boxes’ and implied that the 1989 Hillsborough football stadium tragedy, in which 97 Liverpool fans died, had fostered a culture of victimhood in that city.
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But the popularity of this ‘man of the people’, who in the 2019 general election won the Conservatives their largest parliamentary majority since Margaret Thatcher led the party in the 1980s, has recently cratered. Sixty-two percent of voters think he should resign, his approval rating has dipped to a dismal 22 per cent and the Conservatives currently trail Labour by more than ten points in the polls.
All politicians’ fortunes wax and wane, of course. But why might Johnson’s relatively innocuous, if ill-advised, attendance at a soirée or two seal his fate? After all, he has already presided over Europe’s highest Covid-19 death toll, a bungled Brexit and high-level corruption, in addition to a long record of unsavoury behaviour.
Like most populist leaders, Johnson has long specialised in playing to voters’ emotions. An early exponent of ‘fake news’, he used his space in publications such as the Daily Telegraph, the Spectator and GQ to write columns propounding Eurosceptic conspiracy theories which played on the insecurities of those keen to defend Britishness.
Truth was no obstacle, as when he compared the European Union’s federalising zeal to a Hitlerian scheme or accused the EU of wanting to regulate everything from the curvature of bananas to the size of condoms. Throughout, he portrayed himself—often literally—as the man in the street, whether an affable, tousle-haired Brit on a bike or a genuine, good-natured aficionado of London buses.
Challenging British value
But with ‘Partygate’, Johnson is challenging that most British of all values—following the rules. Since the start of the pandemic, the police have issued over 100,000 ‘fixed-penalty notices’ in England for breaches of coronavirus restrictions, typically for violating the ban on small gatherings. Examples have ranged from the comic—fines of £400 resulted from a walk with a cup of tea being deemed a ‘picnic’—to the tragic, as in the case of Sarah Everard, who was abducted, raped and murdered by a police officer who had accused her of violating coronavirus rules.
The barrister Adam Wagner has counted close to 100 rule changes during the pandemic, occurring on average every 4-5 days. Britons have, largely, maintained their characteristic stiff upper lip, even when, as the Conservative MP Aaron Bell highlighted in Parliament, and as many personal accounts attest, they were separated from loved ones in their final days. The image of Queen Elizabeth II sitting alone at the April 2021 funeral of her husband, Prince Philip, captured this mood vividly.
In short, the British public have sacrificed too much to tolerate Johnson now greedily having his cake and eating it. The prime minister’s cardinal sin is to have forgotten the core tenet of the rule of law: those who make the rules are also bound by them.
‘No. 10 Downing Street was not observing the regulations they had imposed on members of the public,’ Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, recently observed. Perhaps Johnson ‘had not read the rules’ or ‘didn’t understand what they meant’ or maybe he and ‘others around him … didn’t think the rules applied to Number 10’. Or, as seven-year-old Isobel from Sheffield, who didn’t get to have her birthday party when Johnson got his, wrote in a letter to him: ‘Next time follow the rulse [sic]! And I know that you made them but that is not an exoos [excuse].’
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Sense of impunity
While at the University of Oxford, Johnson was a member of the Bullingdon Club, the Etonian-dominated drinking society whose members, with their penchant for burning £50 notes in front of homeless people, were notorious for their brazen amorality and sense of impunity. Such an attitude has characterised Johnson’s entire career, from his fabrication of a quote while at the Times to his recent false accusation, parroting QAnon-type trolls, that the Labour leader, Keir Starmer, had failed when director of public prosecutions to prosecute an infamous UK paedophile.
Johnson likes to preen about his classical education at Eton and Oxford. But he seems to have forgotten that the purchase that rules have on behaviour depends on people identifying with the rules’ moral content, which in turn depends on the rule-makers modelling exemplary behaviour. Without this moral connection, rules become hollow shells.
Many of those who voted for Johnson because ‘he’s a laugh’ may finally be realising that the joke is on them. Treating leaders like entertainers will not point the way to better governance. There is a still-popular 1980s comic BBC series called Yes, Prime Minister. After Partygate, Britons need to say: ‘No, prime minister. Go, prime minister.’
Republication forbidden—copyright Project Syndicate 2022, ‘Boris Johnson’s last affair?’
Antara Haldar is associate professor of empirical legal studies at the University of Cambridge, a visiting faculty member at Harvard University and principal investigator in a project supported by a European Research Council grant on law and cognition.