When Oblivion Finally Beckons: The Fall of Boris Johnson
When writing an article about Boris Johnson, it is inevitable that something will be left out. This British government has broken the law on multiple occasions; it has been corrupt; it has attacked basic human rights; it has limited the right to protest and free media – and it is finally drawing to a close.
The seeds of discontent
Discontent within the Conservative Party can be traced back to October 2021, when a House of Commons committee recommended that then-MP Owen Paterson be suspended for breaking lobbying rules. However, Conservatives, encouraged by the PM, voted to pause his suspension and to set up a new committee to investigate the disciplinary process for MPs. This left the party with new accusations of corruption and sleaze, the Conservative Party’s meat and potatoes. Opposition parties refused to participate in the new committee, forcing the government into an embarrassing U-turn. As a consequence, Paterson resigned as an MP, although notably of his own accord and not followed by any of the government officials who had tried to protect him. Following a by-election, the Conservatives lost Paterson’s former seat to the Liberal Democrats. The first signs of humiliation and fear for the future appeared among Conservative MPs.
However, tensions truly began to rise in November 2021, when details emerged of a party which had taken place during the Covid-19 pandemic at Number 10 Downing Street, the seat of the British government. As is common among pathological liars, this was denied by both the Prime Minister and No. 10 staff. However, public anger grew when a video was leaked of Downing Street staff making light of parties which had taken place whilst the British people followed strict lockdown rules, unable even to visit their dying relatives in hospital. These revelations followed news reports that Boris Johnson had stated “let the bodies pile high” instead of instituting a further lockdown. Following the leaked video, the Prime Minister ordered Civil Servant Simon Case to lead an inquiry into “partygate”. However, Case was quickly replaced by his colleague Sue Gray after it emerged that Case had held a party at his own office.
By January, newspapers were reporting on several parties which had taken place during the pandemic. Let-the-bodies-pile-high Johnson was accused of instigating at least one party, in which he poured drinks for his staff and gave a speech.
Boris Johnson at a Party on Downing Street on the 13th of November 2020 | ITV
On the 12th of January 2022, Boris Johnson apologised to Members of Parliament for “attending an event in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown”, which he thought was “a work event”. Boris Johnson’s defence, then, was his own stupidity. However, Johnson urged MPs to reserve their judgment until the Sue Gray Report was published. At the end of the month, the Metropolitan Police announced that they too would launch an investigation into the parties on Downing Street.
In April, the Metropolitan Police issued 126 Fixed Penalty Notices (fines) for breaking Covid-19 regulations when attending parties, including for Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak. This made Johnson the first serving Prime Minister to be sanctioned for breaking the law.
Boris Johnson almost certainly should have received more fines than he did for the parties which took place – it has been confirmed that the Metropolitan Police did not send questionnaires, as is customary, to Boris Johnson whilst investigating the parties. Furthermore, the Prime Minister did not receive fines for his presence at parties for which other attendees have been fined. Questions will certainly continue to be raised over the coming years regarding how the Met polices those in government.
On the 21st of April, Johnson was referred to the Parliamentary Privileges Committee to investigate allegations that he knowingly misled Parliament by denying that parties ever took place. Misleading Parliament is a breach of the Ministerial Code, which states that “Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”. However, since this is difficult to prove, Boris Johnson has avoided punishment for this.
Despite a secret meeting in which Boris Johnson pressured Sue Gray to drop her investigation into parties, the Sue Gray Report was published on the 25th of May 2022. The report investigated 16 events, 12 of which were also investigated by the police. No longer could Boris Johnson beg MPs to reserve their judgment of him until he was vindicated by either the Metropolitan Police or the Sue Gray Report – both found him guilty.
Illegal parties on Downing Street | Author’s chart
Following losses in the local elections in May, many Conservatives began to squirm. On the 6th of June, enough Conservative MPs had expressed no confidence in their leader that a Vote of Confidence was scheduled for that same day. Boris Johnson won the vote with 59%. The fact that any Conservative could be aware of the Prime Minister’s actions and still support him says a lot about the party.
“Pincher by name, pincher by nature”
However, partygate still wasn’t enough to force Johnson’s resignation – the Prime Minister even had the gall to state, “I just cannot see how actually it’d be responsible” to resign given the crises currently facing the country. Ultimately, it was a sexual misconduct scandal which represented the last straw in breaking Boris Johnson’s back.
In November 2017, Chris Pincher MP quit the Whips’ Office over accusations of sexually harassing activist Alex Story back in 2001. However, the Conservative Party is nothing if not conveniently forgetful, and in 2019, Boris Johnson brought Pincher back into the government. In February 2022, he was named Deputy Chief Whip. Further accusations of sexual misconduct then came to light, and Pincher’s promotion was delayed, but amazingly not halted. In June 2022, following yet another incident, Pincher resigned as Deputy Chief Whip, although Johnson avoided suspending him from the party until a formal complaint was raised.
Questions were asked about how much the Prime Minister knew about Pincher’s sexual misconduct before promoting him – on the 1st of July, the official line was “nothing”, but just three days later, No. 10 was forced to acknowledge that Boris Johnson had been made aware of allegations against Pincher at the time of his promotion. Former No. 10 aide Dominic Cummings went as far as to claim that Johnson referred to the accused as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”. In the words of Anneliese Dodds, “Only Boris Johnson could have looked at this guy’s record and thought ‘he deserves a promotion’.”
“At least two vertebrates”
This latest scandal caused fury in the Conservative Party, and the Prime Minister was met with the highest number of resignations from a British government in a single day, including Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid. In the Conservative discourse, these resignations have been portrayed as a move to protect the integrity of the Conservative Party. As Daily Telegraph columnist Philip Johnstone put it, “After waiting for months to see if any senior member of the Cabinet had a backbone, we now find that there are at least two vertebrates.” I disagree. If the Conservatives had any interest in integrity, Boris Johnson would have never been Prime Minister, or at the very least he would have been booted out long ago. No, these resignations were not honourable, they were calculated.
Despite the flood of resignations, Johnson clung to power. Any interest he had had in the national good was discarded as he replaced his senior cabinet ministers with unknown and inexperienced MPs, charged with leading the country in a time of crisis.
When a regime has been in power too long, when it has fatally exhausted the patience of the people, and when oblivion finally beckons – I am afraid that across the world you can rely on the leaders of that regime to act solely in the interests of self-preservation, and not in the interests of the electorate.
- Boris Johnson, 2011
One by one, the Tory press, the instruction manual for the Conservative voter base, turned on the Prime Minister. As The Times reported: “There is no conceivable chance that Mr Johnson, who failed to secure the backing of 148 MPs in a confidence vote last month, can recover his authority to provide the effective leadership that the country needs at a time of acute national crisis. Every day that he remains deepens the sense of chaos. For the good of the country, he should go.”
The newly-appointed cabinet ministers, sensing the inevitable, urged the Prime Minister to resign. There was no one left to turn to: Boris Johnson was forced to offer his resignation, although did not feel compelled to offer an apology.
This makes it the third time that Boris Johnson has been booted out of a job for lying. I’ll add here that the Prime Minister has never been able to face scrutiny – he even hid in a fridge in the last elections in order to dodge journalists.
Such a catalyst for a Prime Minister’s fall from power is pretty much how Conservatives run their governments. It is not unusual for a Prime Minister to win a no-confidence vote and then be carried out of office by a tide of resignations – both Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were ousted within a year of winning confidence votes after losing the support of their ministers.
So the real question is: why wasn’t partygate enough to trigger these mass resignations? Why was it the Pincher Affair that pushed MPs to finally oust Boris Johnson? In my opinion, Conservatives rarely do anything if not for their own benefit. I suspect that if Tory MPs didn’t resign immediately after partygate, it’s because they weren’t ready for the leadership contest which would be triggered by Boris Johnson’s resignation. I imagine that they had known for a while that they wanted to force him out of office, and so made the decision in closed quarters before silently planning their attacks when the next, inevitable scandal broke. Much like servants standing in corridors plotting the murder of the master of the house, Conservative MPs laid out their battle plans. Just take one look at Rishi Sunak’s campaign to become leader of the party – it is indisputable that he had been working on that many months before his actual resignation.
Moreover, infamously, the resignation of an individual politician rarely makes any difference. British history is full of examples of MPs breaking off to make their own parties and civil servants resigning from government, followed by their political oblivion. A few key politicians resigned over partygate, but it did not produce the tidal wave of resignations that we saw at the end of July. This summer’s events must have been pre-meditated.
“The stupidest party”
Since Boris Johnson’s resignation, Downing Street has become a ghost town. Until the final leadership vote on the 5th of September, Boris Johnson is still serving as Prime Minister, although apparently he felt that this would be best-accomplished whilst on holiday in Slovenia and Greece. According to one Whitehall official, “No. 10 have completely checked out.” Key bills, such as the Online Safety Bill, which has been in the works for three years, have been pushed off the agenda as civil servants are no longer coming into work. The week Johnson resigned, only 55% of Whitehall officials went to work, and two weeks later this had fallen to 35%. All this as British people struggle to make ends meet in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. (I’ll indulge myself here by adding that I recently met one of Boris Johnson’s new cabinet ministers, and asked him about the inertia in the British government. Unsurprisingly, he avoided my question and blustered his way through a vague response about the perils of reading The Guardian too much.)
Now, MPs are fighting to head what John Stuart Mill dubbed “by law of their existence, the stupidest party”. Tory MPs whittled the choice down to two equally unqualified candidates who will face the wider membership of the Conservative Party in their internal election. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss were part of Boris Johnson’s government. Both have their fair share of corruption charges, and Sunak even received a Fixed Penalty Notice for attending a party during lockdown. They are both now seemingly in a contest over who thinks that the last 12 years have been worse; 12 years of chaos and struggle that they presided over in government. In Rishi Sunak’s own words, “We cannot make it worse.”