The Observer view on Boris Johnson hurting the country and shaming his party

A little over a month ago, the prime minister told the House of Commons that he shared the anger of a nation at seeing a video of his Number 10 staff making light of lockdown measures and joking about Christmas parties. We were supposed to believe that a culture of impunity and disregard for rules at the heart of government had absolutely nothing to do with Boris Johnson; that he was as shocked by the hypocrisy as the rest of us. It was always a ludicrous contention that the prime minister had no idea what was going on in his own office, part of the same complex as his own residence. And in the last week the full extent of the sheer gall of a leader prepared to throw his staff under a bus to evade accountability for the worst sort of political hypocrisy has been exposed.

Revelation after revelation has emerged since the start of the year – as Johnson must have known they inevitably would – that rubbishes that statement he made to MPs last month. We now know that in May 2020, Johnson was giving a speech at a social gathering, with drink and food, in the Downing Street garden the very same evening ministers were warning the public at a press conference that they could only meet one other person outside. That his staff were throwing not one, but two, raucous parties that reportedly left items in the garden damaged the night before Prince Philip’s funeral. And that Downing Street staff regularly held drinks parties on Fridays that Johnson would often drop into, giving them the prime ministerial seal of approval.

The Observer has long believed Johnson to be a man of little integrity, but even so, it is hard not to be shocked at the level of contempt in which he so clearly holds parliament and the public. Imagine the consequences if he had misled a court under oath in this way. But to him, it is just the Commons, just the way he approaches politics and every other aspect of his professional life.

It is clear that the view of the Covid rules as optional rather than mandatory, as they were for everyone else in the country, did not stop at the doors of No 10. There were parties and leaving drinks at other government departments. But there is no doubt where this culture emanated from: it started from the very top, with the prime minister. It is extraordinary that those who wrote the law and the guidance flouted it, as almost everyone else, including the Queen, observed it for the sake of public health, even while mourning. For those who did not, there were hefty fines, even for people with far more sympathetic stories than those working in No 10. One teenager was fined hundreds of pounds for organising an outdoor balloon release for his friend who had died and had to go to court to contest a further £10,000 fine issued in error by Durham constabulary.

Two weeks into the new year, Johnson’s authority has been comprehensively shredded. He cannot stay in post. But the Conservative party cannot wipe the slate clean by electing a new leader. Everything about Johnson’s dreadful premiership has been entirely predictable, a reflection of the man he so clearly was long before he became prime minister. He was sacked from a job in journalism in the 1980s for fabricating quotes for a newspaper story and from the Conservative shadow frontbench in the early 2000s for lying about an affair. As chair of the Leave campaign, he was complicit in its false claims that leaving the EU would free up £350m a week for the NHS – later ruled a misuse of official statistics by the UK Statistics Authority – and that a vote to remain in the EU was a vote to share a border with Iraq and Syria. As mayor of London, he failed to declare his personal interests, including his relationship with Jennifer Arcuri, whose company received thousands of pounds of public money.

It was patently obvious what sort of prime minister he would be; no one could credibly argue that there was a senior Tory less well suited to govern Britain. Yet Conservative MPs still crowned him leader in 2019. Enough of them thought he cared too little about the union, allowing him to ruthlessly pursue a hard Brexit and that his loose-with-the-truth style of campaigning could win them a general election in the same way it did the EU referendum. An incompetent, corrupt and rotten prime minister was the bargain they were prepared to make, the cost they were all too willing to impose on the whole country.

What a heavy price Britain has paid. On Covid, the government is trying to use the success of the vaccine programme to detract from the growing political crisis in which it finds itself. It is true that the UK has had a more successful vaccine rollout than many other countries, and that the government, particularly Kate Bingham, who chaired the taskforce, deserves credit for the early investment in vaccine technology. But the government’s overall record on Covid is grim: time and again, during the first 15 months of the pandemic, Johnson failed to learn from previous mistakes and acted to introduce restrictions too slowly, undoubtedly resulting in thousands of avoidable deaths and more economic pain.

First, the government’s hapless approach to education during a pandemic means that far too little has been done to mitigate its impact on children. The effects of this will be felt long into the future. Second, on Brexit, Johnson achieved the hard Brexit the ideological crusaders from his party’s right flank wanted. But it has come at a huge cost: a long-term economic cost, which will depress Britain’s growth prospects for many years to come, but also a perilous risk to the integrity of the union that cannot be measured in pounds and pence and which may mean that within a couple of decades the United Kingdom may no longer even exist. Who cares if the hardest of Brexits offers succour to the cause of Scottish independence?

And faced with the irresolvable conundrum of Brexit – that there can be no clean break from the EU while avoiding the need for a customs border either on the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea – Johnson has chosen simply to pretend this problem does not exist, rather than confront the fact that he or his successor will have to choose between rejecting regulatory alignment between the EU and parts of the UK or stability in Northern Ireland. The disregard for the union permeates everything this government does, extending to ministers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg insulting Scottish Conservatives in a way that only plays into the independence campaign’s hands.

Third, all over Britain, families are suffering as a result of this government’s policies. Johnson won his majority by promising not only to get Brexit done, but to “level up” the country. That was just empty rhetoric: his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has continued the approach of his predecessors since 2010, introducing the biggest ever one-off benefit cut, on top of the last decade’s tax credit cuts that have seen some low-income parents lose thousands of pounds a year even as more affluent families have had their tax bills reduced. Refugees fleeing war zones and human rights abuses have found themselves at the sharp end of a culture war with Priti Patel’s Home Office.

Finally, the last few weeks of revelations about Johnson’s hypocrisy on Covid do not just damage the Conservative party. Like the expenses scandal more than a decade ago, it undermines public trust in all politicians and the legitimacy of our democratic institutions. It makes a mockery of the rule of law when ordinary citizens are punished for breaking the law, but senior politicians, political aides and civil servants appear to neatly sidestep the consequences.

Every day Johnson continues as prime minister, the damage he does grows. As his evolution from electoral asset to electoral liability dawns on his party, it is looking increasingly likely that they will not allow him to continue in office for much longer. But Britain’s political crisis will not be over. The choice of the next prime minister would fall to Conservative MPs and party members. Johnson’s likely successors are all complicit in the government’s dreadful track record.

The only hope lies in a renewed Labour party winning the next general election. Keir Starmer has emerged from recent weeks as a man of competence, integrity and values. Labour still has a long way to go in addressing the reasons why it lost voters in 2019 and communicating what a Starmer premiership would achieve for Britain, but they are advancing from the terrible defeat Jeremy Corbyn led them to then.

Prime minister Boris Johnson is a creation of the modern Conservative party. Tory MPs propelled this charlatan to No 10 entirely because it suited their narrow interests, with no regard for the consequences for the country. It is extraordinary how little contrition many of those who backed him have shown. Johnson’s resignation is not enough: the Conservative party itself must be held accountable for his disastrous premiership.

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