COMMENT CAN HAVE A VERY SHORT SHELF LIFE. When change begins in politics, it has a way of accelerating very quickly and what began as a small trickle may rapidly turn into a torrent.
The upheaval in Westminster which began four days ago is a reminder that those of us who write on politics can often hope to offer little more than a snapshot – at best a peg driven into shifting ground to mark what may prove to be the beginning of something new.
Boris Johnson operates by the expedient lie. From his invention of a quote during his early journalistic career with the Times, the deceiving of his party leader over an extra-marital affair, via the false promises made to the voters of Henley and later to those who elected him as Mayor of London, it has been evident that truthfulness came a poor second to his own advantage. By the time Johnson became the member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip and then Foreign Secretary, his nature was apparent to anyone who had been paying attention. That he was wholly unfitted to be leader of a party and prime minister should have been beyond dispute. But the persona which he had so successfully created of being ‘different’, ‘a character’ ‘a bit of a laugh’ was yet another construct of deceit. And in electoral terms, it worked well for him.
The General Election of 2019 put Boris Johnson into Downing Street with a majority of 80 – the biggest Conservative majority since 1987. It was the ideal situation for a narcissistic personality who had never shown any great interest in considering that with power, comes responsibility.
He continued to go his own way, artfully ruffling his hair for the cameras, lacing his conversation with a little Greek and Latin, sidestepping the gaffes which were indicative of a lack of attention to detail and of an insouciant disregard for a wide range of sensitivities. It all seemed a great jape. But gradually, reality began to erode the protections. The escape artist found there were some matters from which he could not break free and the start of the pandemic in early 2020 began to put him to the test.
The mismanagement of PPE provision and the criminal degree of negligence involved in failing to protect care home residents started to cut through. The favouring of cronies and donors became too obvious to be ignored. An ill-defined but general sense that the Prime Minister was cavalier with facts started to grow. Trust began to diminish.
Then came Partygate. The culture of careless hedonism over which the Prime Minister had presided, the succession of puerile and contradictory excuses which he offered and the attempt to push responsibility onto others (“no one told me it was against the rules”) gave rise to real and enduring anger. A population which had overwhelmingly obeyed the lockdown rules and among whom were so many living with inconsolable grief for loved ones who had died alone, were not willing to ‘move on’ or to believe Johnson’s expressions of contrition. Trust diminished still further.
Through all these failures and displays of contempt for the electorate, ministers and MPs continued to do the media rounds in support of their leader. The contortions and evasions which this demanded of them became ever more apparent. Increasingly, we wondered how long this could continue and when they would start to question their own abasement.
The answer came this week. The prime minister claimed that he knew nothing of the scandals of sexual assault surrounding MP Chris Pincher when he chose to appoint him as Deputy Chief Whip. Boris Johnson’s protests arrived in a crescendo of absurdity: he wasn’t “aware of any allegation” against Pincher. Then he wasn’t aware of any”specific allegation” and finally of any ”serious specific allegation”.
It was all too much for cross-bench peer Simon McDonald, a senior civil servant and formerly permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office, who made public a devastating letter to the parliamentary standards commissioner which exposed Johnson’s falsehoods and claimed that the Prime Minister had been “notified in person” about a formal complaint over Pincher’s behaviour in 2019.
The floodgates were beginning to open. On Tuesday 5 July, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care resigned from the Cabinet. A torrent of resignations followed and by Thursday, 57 parliamentarians on the government payroll had resigned their offices. The collapse of trust had passed a point of no return
The business of government became impossible as departments were left without personnel from Secretaries of State to Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Boris Johnson’s snarling inadequacy before the Parliamentary Liaison Committee and his reluctant, graceless resignation now seem the inevitable outcome of his own misjudgments, although how long he may hang on is as yet open to question.
The point of change was, beyond doubt, Lord McDonald’s letter. One has to wonder how many of those who resigned during the frantic hours of Tuesday and Wednesday would still be propping up a disastrous prime minister out of self interest had McDonald not so effectively caught the moment. But we are now at a point where hope is suddenly possible. The new leader – and eventually prime minister – must take the tide at its flood. The man or woman elected to lead our government will be the greatest imaginable fool if they fail to see that a radical conversion of morals and manners is required – and, I believe – longed for. The cabinet they appoint must mark a clear departure from what Simon Jenkins of the Guardian has described as “a band of second rate cronies” offering “slavish support”. It is in all our interests as citizens of a democracy that they should accomplish this.
Whether it will happen is yet to be discovered. But it is surely time for us, the public, to support those on the green benches who want it to happen. This is the peg-in-the-ground moment from which we may judge what will remain of the umquhile nodding dogs beyond their survival instinct.
We can yet have a better and more honourable politics. Believe it. Work and advocate for it if you can.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen