Of all the spurious arguments advanced for Boris Johnson to stay in office even though he broke the law, there’s one that stands out. Not because it’s the most offensive: in fact, the stink given off by some of the other attempts to defend the prime minister’s behaviour may be even more rank. But this one looms large because its implications are wider and graver.
Start with the first of the explanations offered as to why the criminal sanction imposed by the police on Johnson this week – making him the first prime minister ever found to have broken the law in office – should not see his immediate removal from Downing Street: that the lockdown birthday party that prompted a fixed-penalty notice was brief, lasting “less than 10 minutes.” Of course, that’s a risible defence: there was no exemption in the rules for short gatherings. But it’s especially feeble in the case of Johnson because we know that the party in June 2020 was no one-off. On the contrary, even his defenders expect this week’s fines to be the first of several because Johnson was a serial rule-breaker.
Second comes Johnson’s insistence that “it did not occur” to him that he was breaking the rules. This is what a lawyer might call the idiot’s defence: that the PM was so stupid that, even though he leads the government that introduced the rules and even though he briefed the nation on those rules almost daily in a televised press conference, he did not know what the rules said. We’re used to Johnson insulting our intelligence, but in this move he insults his own.
Third, and most hurtful, comes the Fabricant justification. The eccentrically coiffed MP suggested that Johnson was no more guilty than those teachers and nurses who retreated to “the staff room” after a tough shift to “have a quiet drink”. That remark casually smears all those teachers, nurses and other essential workers who did no such thing, but who instead worked long hours at the safest possible distance, then collapsed into a heap at home from exhaustion.
As for those who echoed Michael Fabricant, hinting that, let’s face it, everyone was breaking the rules one way or another, that is both untrue and an unforgivable slur on the vast majority who, in fact, followed Covid instructions to the letter. Worse, it makes fools of those who did so at great human cost, telling every person who bade farewell to a dying parent or partner via a phone, without the consolation of touch, that they were stupid for doing so – that they should have followed Johnson’s example and done whatever they damn well pleased, and to hell with the rules.
All of those arguments give off a foul stench. And yet, the most troubling is the one that has now become central to Johnson’s rationale for continuing in office: that it would be wrong to remove a British prime minister while conflict rages in Ukraine. It was put most starkly by the Daily Mail front page headline referring to calls from “the Left” for Johnson’s resignation: “Don’t they know there’s a war on?”
Perhaps surprisingly for those who never stop proclaiming their patriotism, such talk betrays ignorance of both British history and the British system of government. Even a nodding acquaintance with Britain’s past would tell you that this country has a habit of dispatching prime ministers in wartime, even during wars in which, unlike the current one in Ukraine, British forces are directly engaged. Odd that 1940 should have slipped the recall of Winston Churchill tribute act Boris Johnson. Odd too that Conservative MPs have apparently forgotten they pushed out Margaret Thatcher in 1990, after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and when everyone knew it was a matter of weeks before British troops would be in combat.
Besides, what matters to Ukraine is the position of the UK government, not just its first minister. To be sure, Kyiv is delighted that Johnson visited the city and has been such a vocal supporter, but under our parliamentary, rather than presidential, system, none of that would alter with a change of PM. Given Labour’s position, it wouldn’t even alter with a change of government.
Worse than ignorant, the Daily Mail argument is cheaply manipulative. It uses the desperate people of Ukraine as a human shield, exploiting their suffering to cover Johnson’s misconduct. And yet, appalling as all that is, it is not the chief source of its illegitimacy.
For that, one need look no further than the resignation letter of David Wolfson, who this week quit as a justice minister. The government, he wrote, could only “credibly defend democratic norms abroad, especially at a time of war in Europe, if we are, and are seen to be, resolutely committed both to the observance of the law and also to the rule of law”.
That is the heart of the matter. Far from Partygate being dwarfed into trivial irrelevance by Ukraine, the two are linked in a way that matters greatly. Vladimir Putin’s attempted invasion of his neighbour has stirred the entire west because people understand what is at stake, that this is a battle not simply for territory but for democracy and the rule of law. Putin and his allies across the world have contempt for democratic norms. Their favoured model is rule by strongman at home, the law of the jungle abroad.
In his rhetoric, Johnson stands with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But in his actions he declares his kinship with Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and the others. He writes life-and-death laws which he then breaks, flagrantly and repeatedly. Next, he lies about his lawbreaking to parliament – the same parliament, remember, that he illegally suspended as one of his first acts in power.
None of this is in the past. This week, perhaps in an attempt to divert attention away from the Partygate scandal, he announced plans to ship those seeking asylum – including those ultimately found to have a just and fair claim to refuge – to faraway Rwanda, a dictatorship with a record on human rights so bad the UK government raised concerns just last year. It’s likely that the new policy is against the law, “a breach of the right to life, the right not to be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment and the right to be tried before conviction”, according to one legal scholar. But that did not hold Johnson back. On the contrary, he would like nothing more than a court battle, so he can pose as the people’s tribune, once again frustrated by those he pre-emptively referred to in his Rwanda announcement as “an army of politically motivated lawyers”.
The pattern is clear: contempt for the law, contempt for those tasked with upholding it. Johnson’s defenders say he must stay in office because of Ukraine. In fact, the war for that country, and the wider struggle it has come to represent, make it all the more urgent that he go.