CAMBRIDGE – UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the enfant terrible of British politics, is currently 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 31, a report by 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 then 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 longstanding confidante Munira Mirza, often called “Boris’s Brain” – have quit. Calls for Johnson to go are growing louder.
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.
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%, 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 track record of unsavory behavior.
Like most populist leaders, Johnson has long specialized 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 Euroskeptic conspiracy theories that played on the insecurities of those keen to defend Britishness. Truth was no obstacle, as when he compared the European Union’s federalizing 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.
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 ($550) 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 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 rules! And I know that you made them but that is not an exoos [excuse].”
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 characterized Johnson’s entire career, from his fabrication of a quote while at The Times to his recent false accusation, parroting QAnon-type trolls, that Labour leader Keir Starmer had earlier failed to prosecute an infamous UK pedophile.
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 behavior depends on people identifying with the rules’ moral content, which in turn depends on the rule-makers modeling exemplary behavior. Without this moral connection, rules become hollow shells.
Many of those who voted for Johnson because “he’s a laugh” may finally be realizing that the joke is on us. Treating our leaders the same way we treat entertainers will not point the way to better governance. After Partygate, Britons need to say, “No, prime minister. Go, prime minister.”
By Antara Haldar
Antara Haldar is University Lecturer in Empirical Legal Studies at the University of Cambridge.