Why Johnson must be removed

If Conservative MPs choose to keep the prime minister in power, they will be declaring that following the law and telling the truth are no longer important

April 13, 2022
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Zuma Press / Alamy Stock Photo

On 12th April, Boris Johnson became the first serving prime minister in British history to receive a penalty for law-breaking while in office. The fines issued by the Metropolitan Police, and Johnson’s subsequent statement, confirmed three important truths: that Johnson broke the rules he imposed on others; that he misled the House of Commons when he told MPs “that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”; and that he does not intend to resign.

Conservative MPs must now make the decision they ducked in February. They must determine whether Johnson’s offences are sufficiently serious to justify his removal from office.

Unlike Jacob Rees-Mogg, who described the allegations last month as “fluff,” most MPs and ministers have not, so far, sought to play down the gravity of the situation. Instead, they have deployed two main lines of argument for keeping Johnson in power: the war in Ukraine, and the lack of an “oven-ready” successor. Those arguments deserve a serious response, but both are badly flawed.

The first claim is that the war in Ukraine means “politics has got serious again.” That is true: but in serious times, it matters more than ever that the public can believe what a prime minister says. When governments are making life and death decisions about refugees and lethal military aid, or telling the public about the crimes committed by foreign governments, the public must have confidence that they are speaking the truth. And if the public are to be asked to make sacrifices, they need to be sure that those in power will share them. The higher the stakes, the more dangerous it is to indulge a culture in which ministers can say one thing and do another; or in which parliament can be misled and no one held to account.

The war in Ukraine should also remind us why we prize the rules that Johnson has broken. Putin’s Russia offers a stark illustration of what happens if leaders can lie to the public with impunity; if they can lift themselves above the rule of law; or if representative institutions become unable to hold them to account. Truth-telling and the rule of law are the flood defences of a free society, and we dismantle them at our peril.

As for the continuity of policy: there is no reason to think that any alternative prime minister would adopt a significantly different course on Ukraine (except, perhaps, on refugees, an issue where Johnson lags far behind public opinion). Support for Ukraine is the consensus position, not just within the Conservative Party but across the House of Commons. Is British foreign policy really such a fragile vessel that only one Great Man can steer it to success?

The second line of defence is that there are no viable alternatives to Johnson, especially now Rishi Sunak’s star has fallen. It is true that the options are painfully limited: after the purging of the Cameroons, the defenestration of the Mayites and the expulsion of alleged Remainers, the Conservative Party is desperately light on talent and experience. But if Johnson himself were not currently prime minister, would anyone be calling for him to take over? Has he proven a leader of such sublime gifts that the most basic rules of constitutional government should be bent to keep him in office?

If Johnson were to go, his successor might be equally flawed. But they would come to power in the knowledge that law-breaking would be punished and that lying to parliament would not be tolerated. That is a better security for good government than waiting for a new Abe Lincoln to show up.

The importance of that security is apparent from Johnson’s own career. It is a common complaint that Johnson behaves “as if the rules don’t apply to him.” But that is probably because they never have. Throughout his life, Johnson has consistently broken the rules and consistently been rewarded. If he gets away with rule-breaking on this scale, what conclusions do we expect him—or his successors—to draw for the future?

Alongside those two defences, a third argument for keeping Johnson in power occasionally comes from the Labour benches: that a discredited prime minister increases the likelihood of a change of government at the next election. It is an argument that underestimates Johnson’s durability—a persistent failing of his critics—and misconstrues the role of the Opposition in a democracy.

In a parliamentary democracy, the task of an Opposition is not just to win the next election. It has a constitutional responsibility, operating throughout the parliament, to oppose misgovernment and the abuse of power. Neither the governing party nor the Opposition should ever want to perpetuate those two things for their own electoral advantage.

MPs of all parties have an “ecological responsibility” to the democratic system in which they operate. If they believe that standards in public life matter, they should take any opportunity to uphold them. If they think that a prime minister is unfit to govern, they should take any chance to remove him.

“The PM and Chancellor,” Michael Gove wrote last night, “deserve our full support. They made the right calls on the big issues.” If Conservative MPs share that view, they will be confirming that law-breaking and truth-telling are not among the “big issues” on which leaders must be judged. They will be as complicit as Johnson in the erosion of democratic norms.

Ultimately, this controversy is not about cake, or candles, or Carrie. It is about two questions: should a prime minister obey the laws that he imposes on others; and is it acceptable for a prime minister to mislead parliament? Conservative MPs must now decide on their answer. Their verdict will tell us much about the health, not just of the governing party, but of the political culture in which it operates.