Observations of an expat: Boris

The rules, the law, other people… they were of little or no concern to Boris Johnson. At least not until this week when his contempt for parliamentary convention, constitutional law and common decency resulted in his being dragged kicking and screaming to the exit door of 10 Downing Street.

Boris Johnson’s lack of moral fibre has wreaked havoc on Britain’s unwritten constitution; the social contract between rulers and ruled; Britain’s position in the world and the country’s finances. The Conservative Party has been mortally wounded by the decision to elect him Party leader and to stand by him for three scandal-riven years.

He won them votes with his unruly mop of hair, boyish charm and extraordinary skill with the spoken and written word. But winning votes is only part of the job. A Prime Minister needs to be able to govern. Boris Johnson’s incompetence, laziness and skewed moral compass made him unfit for the tenancy of Downing Street.

The success of the British parliamentary system relies heavily on the “Good Chap” theory of Government. Politicians are expected to act with honesty and integrity. If they are caught in a lie – especially a lie to parliament – they have to be relied upon to do the honourable thing and resign.

This is not the law. It is a parliamentary convention which has been observed for centuries. But Boris is not a good chap. He is a bad chap. He cares not one jot for parliamentary convention. Parliament – as far as Boris was concerned – was an obstacle to be overcome rather than a political tool to be used.

For the past 50 years successive British prime ministers have tried to shift their role from that of  “First Among Equals” in a cabinet of high-achieving individuals to a more presidential type of government. This meant circumventing parliament as much and as often as possible. Boris embraced this trend with vigour and disastrous consequences.

It started with British membership of the EU. His lies narrowly swung the British behind Brexit. But then when parliament balked at the terms he negotiated with Brussels he illegally attempted to prorogue the legislature. That was followed by effectively booting 21 rebel conservative MPs out parliament, thus ensuring that his post 2019-election majority would be comprised mostly of fawning acolytes.

The cabinet he appointed has – with a few exceptions – been chosen not on the basis of competence but on personal loyalty to Boris Johnson. It is generally regarded as one of the most – if not the most – mediocre cabinet in British history.

On the foreign policy front Boris has been a disaster. His oven-ready deal with the EU has emerged a half-baked at best by Boris’s insistence on tearing up the Northern Ireland Protocol and general tendency to use Brussels as a scapegoat for his problems. That in turn has stymied any hopes of the much-hyped US-UK trade deal to replace the EU and tarnished Britain’s reputation as a trusted negotiator and champion of free trade and international law.

Boris Johnson is regarded by world leaders as a dangerous joke. His sole success – albeit a significant one – has been in spearheading Western support for Ukraine. This policy started before Johnson became prime minister. It is certain to continue, whomever resides in 10 Downing Street.

Economically, Johnson has been ruinous. His claims to the contrary are laughable. Britain has the highest inflation and lowest growth of any G7 country, and it is expected to worsen. Almost all of the 52 resignations that forced Boris’s resignation focused on his lack of integrity. The stand-out exception was the letter from Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. He and the prime minister were due in the coming week to give a joint speech on economic strategy. The chancellor said their differences were too great. Sunak wanted lower taxes, borrowings and spending to ensure fiscal rectitude. Boris wanted lower taxes and higher spending financed by more borrowing. It was an unsustainable policy which – the chancellor knew – led to economic ruin. But it won votes in the impoverished north where the latest crop of narrowly-elected Johnsonite MPs were clinging to office.

But Boris’s economic policies were – at most – a secondary reason for his departure. He lied – repeatedly. And then he lied about his lies. Boris Johnson destroyed his credibility and in doing so severely damaged the machinery of British government. He should have resigned when caught the first time. He refused because he maintained that he had a personal presidential-type election mandate from the people. That is not how the British constitution works. The conservative party won the mandate in the 2019 election, not Boris Johnson the individual.

Whomever succeeds Boris Johnson faces a Herculean task. They must restore Britain’s place in the world; sort out Northern Ireland; develop a working relationship with the EU and US; deal with a cost of living crisis and restore the country’s finances. Most of all they must restore integrity in government and renew the social contract between the political class and the voters.

Boris Johnson is a keen admirer of Winston Churchill. He fancied himself as the 21st century reincarnation of the great wartime leader. Well, to slightly misquote Churchill, the departure of Boris is not the end of Britain’s problems. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.

* Tom Arms is foreign editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and the author of “The Encyclopedia of the Cold War” and the recently published “America Made in Britain” that has sold out in the US after six weeks but is still available in the UK.

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  • @Martin – Do any western leaders see it that way?

    From press reports I suggest the only people who see it that way are those trying to “big up” Johnsons “achievements”. You only need to compare Johnson’s efforts to Thatcher with Reagan and Tony Blair with Bush, to see that Johnson is all about self-promotion.

  • Yeovil Yokel 9th Jul '22 - 3:37pm

    I second Ian Sanderson’s comment about Johnson’s lack of verbal and written skills. His language can be florid and evocative, but he rarely connect words together into coherent sentences or well-ordered arguments. He gave a speech in the Commons after being sacked as Foreign Secretary and it was one of the worst I’ve ever witnessed – he was rambling like a drunk. His hero, Churchill, was sometimes well-lubricated when he orated, but he sounded quite sober by comparison.

  • Ian Sanderson is spot on in terms of Johnson’s lack of speaking ability. As for written words, we might say that he has tended to substitute lying for spin – there is a difference. Spin can be defended as part of the delicate art of providing sufficient simplification to enable voters to make democratic choices. In his career as a journalist it was the lies rather than his writing style that got him the sack on several occasions.

  • @ Tom Arms “Observations of an expat : Boris”.

    Please, please, please, Mr Arms, no more use of the matey intimate ‘Boris’. His name is Johnson… Mr Johnson, if you wish to be polite He’s a menace to decent standards in public life and about to be gone. Larry the Downing Street Cat probably has better standards and certainly causes less harm.

  • How about we turn our minds to what we want a new government to do?

    To start with it has to re-commit to supporting Ukraine. Not a problem there. There is cross-party support for Zelensky and his boys/
    Next, it has to raise taxes. The treasury has been landed with huge borrowings to pay for Brexit, the pandemic, Ukraine and Boris’ s promises. The cost of these borrowings is increasing daily as inflation pushes up interest rates. This is unsustainable.

    Next they have to deal with the trade unions and the country’s low productivity problems. The UK’s productivity per hour is, if I recall correctly, 25% behind the US. The unions are quite correctly concerned about inflation. OK, give them more money in return for a change in working practices and redundancies. Britain actually has a problem at the moment with a labour shortage.

    Next, I would increase social service spending. I am not a person who likes doling out money to the undeserving, but at the moment there are literally millions who are having to live off free food from food banks. I think that if this is allowed to continue it could lead to civil disturbances. We should try to avoid that.

    Then, I would take Britain back into the EU single market and customs union. Ideally, I would like to rejoin the EU but that is politically impossible at the moment. Going back into the single market and customs union would renew our access to European markets and allow the free movement of people in and out of UK. It would also solve the intractable problem of Northern Ireland.

    Finally, I would change the electoral system to a structure that allowed the UK to move away from the two-party system which is so polarising.

    Any more ideas?

  • Tom Arms – I think you sum up what we have all been thinking but were maybe too reticent to say. Boris Johnson has relied on the British preference for smoothing things over, and looking on the bright side, all the while seriously undermining the conventions and standards of public life. Thank goodness he has gone. My only worry is that he may have set new low standards which his successor may emulate.

  • Tom, I’m afraid I have to disagree about the Conservative Party having been mortally wounded. This is the ideal time for Johnson to depart, giving the new leader a clear run to the next general election and enough time to wash his or her hands of past mistakes.
    Obviously Johnson’s resignation is good for the country, but if we are honest he has been responsible for a lot of Lib Dem votes in recent by-elections, and we are going to miss him. His departure is also terrific news for the Brexiters; as the cold light of day dawns on the economic carnage leaving the EU has wreaked, he’s oven-ready for being thrown under the bus. [The mixed metaphor is my tribute to Johnson’s rhetorical skills, which were patchy, in my opinion.]

  • Paul Barker 9th Jul '22 - 7:18pm

    Boris hasn’t actually gone yet & he isn’t keeping quiet as promised either. We don’t know if the damage to The Tories is long-term or not but The Mail is certainly doing its best to drag it out, building a new Myth of betrayal – the old “Giant brought down by pigmies” transferred from Thatcher to Johnson. The Thatcherite bitterness lasted Decades.

  • Andrew Melmoth 9th Jul '22 - 8:17pm

    Johnson has destroyed the premierships of the last three tory leaders – Cameron, May, and himself. Odds on he destroys the next as well.

  • George Thomas 9th Jul '22 - 8:48pm

    “Sunak wanted lower taxes, borrowings and spending to ensure fiscal rectitude. Boris wanted lower taxes and higher spending financed by more borrowing. It was an unsustainable policy which – the chancellor knew – led to economic ruin.”

    There is nothing left to cut away and the UK is desperate for investment in public services because far from fixing the roof these past 12 years have been about destroying the foundations. The only alternative to Boris’ plan is doing it better and fairer – NI rises aren’t fair when other taxes can be increased – and following through on the plans rather than dropping the ball when the speeches stop and policy making starts. Turning the other way is a return to the economically stupid and cruel politics of austerity.

  • @George Thomas – “NI rises aren’t fair when other taxes can be increased”
    What exactly wasn’t fair about the NI rises?

  • Perhaps one of the worst things about Johnson is the number of people who still admire him and think he was doing a brilliant job and all the problems were the fault of other people. Many people said the same thing about some foreign politicians who caused chaos and tragedy to millions. I guess many people like to live in a fantasy world remote from the realities of everyday life.

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