Politics is full of magic wands and silver bullets, one of the most popular of which is changing leadership when things are going pear-shaped. While that often works, sometimes the leadership isn’t actually the problem. Chris Graham explains.
If you’re a fan of Boris Johnson – and let’s face it, what’s not to love about an oafish, entitled, race-baiting political opportunist who perpetually looks like he’s just gotten out of bed – then you would probably have hoped that he’d ‘got the stupid out of his system’ with this stunt-gone-wrong a decade ago.
On the hustings as the Mayor of London to promote the 2012 Olympics, Boris got himself stuck on a zip line, which is how he came to be dangling, crotch-first, in front of the world’s media while he limply waved two Union Jacks and politely asked for a crane to get him down.
The image – which includes a bright blue helmet and, with the addition of his pants hoisted high above his waist, makes it look like that’s how Johnson leaves the house every morning, lest he fall down some stairs or walk off a cliff – has come back to haunt the British Prime Minister many, many times.
But equally, if you come to office with people already knowing you’re a buffoon, it makes it far easier to screw up without the gaffes costing you your job.
Alas, Boris has somehow gone and outdone himself, with footage emerging earlier this week of the PM fronting UK Parliament to face a barrage of questions about why he won’t resign… from members of his own party. This was followed a short time later by the whole circus repeating, for two hours no less, at a parliamentary select committee grilling, at which Johnson claimed to be having an “excellent day”.
And then followed 12 hours later by Johnson, finally, resigning. A more fitting end to a parliamentary career and a Prime Ministership defined by lie after lie, humiliation after humiliation, is hard to imagine.
Johnson narrowly survived a no confidence motion by his own party only a month ago, after the release of a report into ‘Partygate’, the revelations of Johnson at least twice flouting his own Covid lockdown regulations, then lying about it. At the time, ordinary Britons – who were dying in their tens of thousands – were being denied the right to visit loved ones on their death beds.
This week, he was caught in another lie after promoting political ally and serial sexual harasser Chris Pincher, who was facing fresh allegations of sexual assault. Johnson claimed not to know about the allegations; then he claimed not to know about the specifics of the allegations; then it emerged Johnson had been given a detailed briefing into Pincher’s alleged behaviour before the appointment.
It finally proved too much for Johnson’s colleagues, culminating in close ally and senior cabinet member Michael Gove visiting him at Number 10 Downing Street two days ago, to urge him to resign.
Johnson’s response was to sack Gove for his disloyalty, something about which Johnson knows quite a bit. After all, Johnson rose to the highest office in Britain by ceaselessly working to undermine his two predecessors, first David Cameron, then Theresa May.
There’s an old joke in British politics about the convention of the Chief Whip visiting the PM with a metaphorical glass of scotch whiskey and a pistol, so that he can ‘do the right thing’, This, media pundits laughed, had been flipped on his head by Johnson, who had drunk the Scotch, then shot the Whip.
Of course, it wasn’t only Gove who was gone from the cabinet, or the outer ministries. By the end of yesterday, no less than 59 ministers had resigned in protest, an extraordinary number for two reasons.
The first is that there could actually be 59 ministers to resign. Unlike the Australian system, where a ministerial post is a coveted position and actually means something, in the United Kingdom, where bureaucracy and red tape was invented, virtually everyone who gets elected to Government wins a prize, with 122 ministerial positions up for grabs (as of May 2022).
The second is that 59 represents almost half of them. By midnight, Johnson’s cabinet and ministry looked like a morgue, and smelled even worse.
What forced the Party’s hand – what drove so many Conservatives to hand in their resignations – was Johnson’s refusal to quit in the face of such outrageous scandal, and such mounting pressure. But that says more about the Conservatives than it does about Johnson.
We all knew the depth of Johnson’s narcissism, not to mention his naked ambition and sense of privilege. And yet, his party still elevated him to its highest office. What, exactly, did they think would happen? How did they honestly believe that someone like Johnson, who is most likely lying if his lips are moving, would end his term/s in office? Quietly?
We’re seeing the same phenomenon play out in the US. The Republican Party is tying itself in knots trying to both recover from and sustain the power base of former US president Donald Trump.
Like Johnson, Trump lurched from scandal to scandal throughout his tenure. But unlike Johnson, Trump has never been held to account for any of it, save for being voted out of office, although if you ask Trump – and many in his party – that never really happened.
This will no doubt cause many Brits this morning to believe that ‘the system worked’; their nation didn’t follow the path of Trump; they’re better than the Yanks.
The system didn’t work, and the removal of Johnson completely misses the point, because contrary to popular belief, Johnson was never the problem, any more than Trump was. A problem, absolutely, yes, just like Trump. But Johnson wasn’t the problem.
The problem is that apart from the Conservative party, a truckload of Britons also voted for Boris, despite already knowing just how bad he was.
At the December 2019 election, after several years of Brexit high farce and five months as Prime Minister, British voters handed Johnson a landslide victory that saw the Conservatives pick up an additional 48 seats, and 43.6 percent of the national vote.
More than 13 million people voted Tory at the election: “The highest share of the national vote since 1979,” pointed out Johnson in his resignation speech this morning. The only way the statement could have been more accurate was if Johnson added, “… despite what everyone already knew about me”, followed by a sheepish grin.
And now, as the real sickness remains undiagnosed – a complete collapse of faith and trust in the institutions of western government – the British press and the political elites, including the Opposition parties, can go through the motions of pretending that British democracy has once again shone brightly, and that all we need is a new leader.
As if to underscore the delusion, names like Rishi Sunak (the former Chancellor); Sajid Javid (the former Health Minister); and Nadhim Zahawi (the former Education Minister) are being thrown up as potential replacements, apparently oblivious to the fact that the successful Brexit vote which Johnson exploited to win power was deeply rooted in Britain’s greatest ever export… racism. Or maybe the political class are well aware of that fact, and they’re all just ‘going through the motions’ before the whitest man in cabinet, Ben Wallace, is handed the top job.
‘Civilized’ society’s version of a whitewash. Rinse and repeat.
Either way, this problem is not restricted to Britain or the US. Australians have always had a healthy distrust of politicians, but as the recent federal election shows, voters are walking away from the two major parties.
Boris Johnson claimed at a mandate at the last election, even though less than half the nation voted conservative, with a turnout of just two-thirds of the country.
Anthony Albanese also claimed a mandate, even though less than one in three people (32.58 percent) voted Labor.
Peter Dutton and the Liberals are fond of pointing that out. They’re less keen for you to know that even fewer Australians voted Liberal (just 31.89 per cent). Even with the Nationals and Country Liberals thrown in, the Coalition attracted just 35.69 per cent of the vote.
People are walking away from ‘parties of government’ because they keep delivering a political system that makes punters feel isolated and unheard, that advantages a privileged elite, but which has also somehow found a way to convince those getting screwed that it’s the ‘disadvantaged other’ who are to blame.
We’re at a critical junction in Australia, and as inflation spikes, wages stagnate, and energy prices and the cost of living continue to rise, you can expect the dissatisfaction here to intensify as well.
You can also expect that we have our own Boris Johnsons already plotting their own high wire acts.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.