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Voters Have Finally Punished Boris Johnson

Voters Have Finally Punished Boris Johnson

Sunday, 8 May, 2022 - 04:15

Lots of people predicted that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration would be a bin fire, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be quite so surreal.

The voters, at least, have noticed, and they have punished him. In Thursday’s local elections Mr. Johnson and his Conservative Party lost more than 400 seats and control of a number of councils, including at least two flagship councils in London. The party expected this and leaked ahead of the election that it would lose an absurd 800 seats. It hoped to make those results look like victory, with the dishonesty we have come to expect. It is increasingly unlikely that Mr. Johnson will be allowed to remain the head of his party to fight in the general election in 2024. He might, but he shouldn’t, and if he does, it will mean that he has corrupted our politics beyond repair.

Mr. Johnson became prime minister in July 2019, and he and his party won in a landslide election that December. Almost three years later, a Britain still reeling from Brexit and the pandemic is facing a cost-of-living crisis and forecasts of double-digit inflation. But instead of the urgent business of the state, Westminster is consumed by scandal, the pauses between which grow shorter and shorter until the impression is of one great rolling catastrophe.

There was the wallpaper crisis, in which Mr. Johnson covered his flat above 11 Downing Street in a gold design that cost over $1,000 a roll, only for it to fall off the walls. There was the Dominic Cummings crisis, in which Mr. Johnson’s most senior former adviser and Brexit architect turned whistle-blower described a prime minister who sits in his study dreaming about “monuments to him[self] in an Augustine fashion.”

But the mega-crisis, the main event, is “Partygate,” a series of illicit parties Mr. Johnson and his staff hosted or attended under lockdown, and which he misled Parliament about — by convention, a resigning offense.

For months, Partygate has groaned on episodically like “House of Cards” but real, and more frightening: There was The ABBA Party, The Birthday Party and The Christmas Party, at which a prize called Sexist of the Year was reportedly awarded. These parties took place while Britons were losing their jobs and their businesses, and dying in hospitals often without the comfort of their families.

If the rule breaking of Partygate is gaudy and tasteless, so is the defense. After Mr. Johnson’s illicit 56th-birthday party during the first lockdown in 2020 (The Birthday Party) an acolyte said, “He was, in a sense, ambushed with a cake.” This is a new chapter in Mr. Johnson’s fascinating narrative: His antagonists at least used to be human.

In January we had the initial findings from Sue Gray — the civil servant who was tasked to investigate Partygate after her predecessor stood down following reports that he, too, had held a party. Then the London Metropolitan Police conducted its own investigation and has now fined more than 50 people, including Mr. Johnson, his wife and the chancellor of the Exchequer.

No British prime minister has been sanctioned for breaking the law while in office before, but these are wild days. The rest of the Gray report will be released when the police conclude their inquiries.

Now that the disappointing election results are in, will MPs wait for the final Gray report to decide whether or not to schedule a vote of no confidence in Mr. Johnson? That they have not already is partly because there is, as yet, no obvious successor. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the Exchequer, was until recently considered the most likely candidate because he is tidy, while Mr. Johnson often resembles a kitchen mop. In Britain we like a barman, then a bishop for prime minister. But Mr. Sunak’s star has fallen: He was found to have held on to his US Green Card long after he’d become a member of Parliament, and his wife, who is the daughter of a billionaire, was revealed to have a special tax status and pay no tax on her worldwide income in England. This did not play well with voters, whose taxes Mr. Sunak had just raised.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, another likely contender, has been channeling Margaret Thatcher by posing in a tank, but the effort is spoiled almost every time she speaks: In February the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, asked her if she accepted Russian sovereignty over Rostov and Voronezh and she said no. Rostov and Voronezh are in Russia.

But even if a successor for Mr. Johnson can be found, it may not be enough to fix the party. The rot may have started at the top, but it is setting in. Mr. Johnson tends to promote nonentities and careerists for fear of challenge, and he does not turn happily to serious topics. His levity and personal immorality set the tone.

This year a Conservative MP has resigned after being found guilty of sexually assaulting a teenager; another has been suspended from the party after allegations of sexual harassment and drug use; and three cabinet ministers are among the 56 other MPs, from both parties, being investigated for sexual misconduct.

The latest competing scandals, though perhaps no longer by the time you read this, are that Neil Parish, also a Conservative MP, has resigned after admitting he’d watched pornography twice on his smartphone in the House of Commons. His defense for the first occasion was that he was searching for a combine harvester called the Dominator. (Perhaps the Dominator is the leadership the country needs?) He owns a Dominator — his constituency is rural — and he was looking for it online while attempting to also legislate. He found porn instead and, being a simple man, he watched it. But his “crime — biggest crime — is that on another occasion I went in a second time,” he told the BBC, and added, “I made a huge terrible mistake and I’m here to tell the world.”

The New York Times

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