When the great 19th-century Tory leader, Benjamin Disraeli, came to his friend (and fellow-novelist) Edward Bulwer-Lytton and asked for his political support in a forthcoming parliamentary debate, Lytton said: “Well, I will support you if you're right.”
“That’s no use to me,” responded Dizzy. “Anyone can support me when I’m right. What I want is people who will support me when I’m wrong.”
That’s the unenviable position in which the U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson finds himself today. He is seeking support from MPs in his own Tory party when he’s in the wrong. And not just mildly, mistakenly, accidentally, or partly in the wrong, but massively, seriously, undeniably, and stonkingly in the wrong.
"What have I done?"
How wrong this particular wrong is—well, that’s a matter of dispute. What Boris Johnson did was to impose a series of tough anti-Covid regulations on his fellow-citizens—staying at home, wearing masks, social distancing, not going to marriages, funerals, or the deathbeds of dying loved ones—while ignoring the same regulations himself when he attended parties in Number Ten Downing Street (his official home as well as an office) where “alcohol was served.”
On top of that, the truth had to be prised out of Boris’s possession by a series of damning tweets, Downing Street memos, Fleet Street scoops, and eventually an official report by a senior civil servant, Sue Gray, who made strong criticisms of the behavior of Downing Street staff but whose report had to be heavily redacted until the police determine whether any of them, including Boris, will be charged with the criminal offense of drinking in company during a pandemic.
It’s clear from all this that Boris broke the rules he was imposing on everyone else. For most of the last few weeks, his denials of this made matters worse when they gradually disintegrated under the weight of evidence. His popularity—which two years ago was enormous when he won a landslide election, fell ill, and then emerged from hospital having almost died from Covid—collapsed in recent days to below sea level. He faced demands from all sides, including Tory M.P.s and ordinary party members, that he should resign in disgrace. Many of his critics as the week ended were still hopeful that Boris would feel the policeman’s hand on his collar when they checked the evidence and found an armory of smoking guns.
Even then Boris might leap free with a single bound. Until now we’ve been assured by Boris’s media and opposition critics that “the Prime Minister must be treated like anyone else who’s broken the law.” But it now transpires that those charged with illegal partying are not hanged, drawn, and quartered—as the Labour Party, the tabloids, and Remainer Tories seem to have been hoping—but merely informed of their offense by the cops, asked to pay a modest fine, and let go without being properly “named and shamed.”
'What would Disraeli do?
Naturally, the forces of political morality have switched lines and now declare that a prime minister should be treated as an exceptional case and arraigned in such cases. But Boris refuses to make that promise; there doesn’t seem to be a way of forcing a change of mind on him; and any leaking of his hypothetical criminality would probably be a worse criminal offense than having an illicit drink with a maskless man.
By the time that Boris stood up to make his parliamentary statement “accepting” the criticisms of the civil servant’s report this week, there was a growing sense that Boris might well get away with it. He then lived uncomfortably through the worst two hours of any politician’s life as he had to apologize and grovel in response to a torrent of attacks, insults, gibes, flouts, and sneers.
But he survived, however unheroically, and later the same day he glad-handed his way around the 1922 committee of Tory back-benchers where he received a friendly reception. Though his approval ratings are low, they’ve stopped sinking, and there are signs in the opinion polls that support for the Tory Party has not fallen as far as most pundits expected because “shy Tories,” embarrassed by the Boris scandals, are getting over them and returning to the fold. And though the Telegraph tells us that a steady stream of MPs are still calling for Boris to go, its own list of them stops at twelve (or did at the time of writing) and one of them has since removed his letter of no confidence.
Boris meanwhile jetted off to Ukraine where he met the president and encouraged the Ukrainians to stand firm against Russian threats. He was pursuing the usual tactic of a political leader under fire of “getting on with the people’s business.” The Downing Street machine also let it be known that he would be installing a whole raft of reforms to improve the government's delivery of prosperity. In particular he would light a “bonfire of regulations” to take advantage of the U.K.'s “Brexit freedoms” now that it’s no longer bound by E.U. rules. Normality was returning—that was the message on Wednesday.
The Ukraine is nice this time of year.
On Thursday four senior Downing Street aides resigned. On Friday another aide followed. They included Johnson's chief of staff, his director of communications, and his principal private secretary--all key members of his entourage. The papers carry stories suggesting that at least some of the resignations were examples of "going to avoid being pushed" following less than stellar performances in office. One official had supposedly spent two days watching cricket in the week Afghanistan fell to the Taliban. Whether or not such stories turn out to be true, the leaking of them is a standard operation by the government press machine to protect the boss. For the moment, therefore, keep a grain of salt at hand.
But one resignation may have a wider significance than the others. Munira Mirza was the head of the Policy Unit in Downing Street with a government-wide brief to advise on policy and strategy. She was not a civil servant who came with Downing Street but a personal friend and long-time aide to Johnson who served with him in his two terms as mayor of London. Johnson called her a "powerful nonsense detector" and relied considerably on her judgment and intellectual support.
Why did she jump? It's hard to believe that her stated reason—Boris's parliamentary gibe that opposition leader Sir Keir Starmer had failed in his duty a decade ago to prosecute the serial child molester and BBC disc jockey, Jimmy Savile—as the sole or even the main reason, though she doubtless disapproved of it. She certainly had other possible motives for resignation. In particular, she had set up a committee of distinguished social scientists of different ethnic backgrounds and national origins to report on racial and ethnic disparities in the U.K. It produced a thorough and well-documented report essentially arguing that though racism still exists in Britain, the "claim the country is still institutionally racist is not borne out by the evidence.”
That was controversial and strongly attacked by Labour, the wider Left, and "the race relations industry." It was also well-argued, supported by other social scientists, perfectly defensible, and a necessary attempt to ensure that race, ethnicity, and migration can be honestly and fairly debated. But the government failed to give the report its full backing. It was allowed to die. That must have pained Ms. Mirza, and it was probably not the last occasion on which her boss disappointed her by failing to fight important political battles in which "the Blob" would have been against him.
Sherelle Jacobs in a Daily Telegraph column noted that though public anger was fading over “Partygate” itself, its long term impact might be a more dangerous one: to suggest to voters that the Tories are faking it when they promise conservative policies or strike conservative attitudes. Many voters—indeed, not a few Tory MPs themselves—feel exactly that. Nor will Boris’s latest promise of de-regulation comfort them. Here’s a quote from a Telegraph report the day after Boris promised his bonfire of regulations:
The Government watered down plans for a post-Brexit bonfire of Brussels regulations – often cited as a major benefit of leaving the EU – and opened fresh divides between the embattled Prime Minister and his backbenchers. A plan devised by Lord Frost, the UK’s former Brexit negotiator, to cut two retained EU regulations for every rule written was dropped. It was said not to fit in with Mr Johnson’s ambitions to cut Britain’s carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 .
As the old saying goes: You couldn't make it up.
Stiff upper lip, and all that.
Notice in particular that what seems to have blocked the government's program of de-regulation is its commitment to Net-Zero. For though there are undoubtedly other causes contributing to Britain’s growing energy crisis (with its immediate threat of energy prices rising one third this year), Net-Zero is the single most important reason. That truth has been denied and wished away for years, but its breaking through at last. Today's papers report that senior cabinet ministers in the U.K. now favor scaling back Net-Zero plans and encouraging more production of Britain's plentiful natural gas.
All that stands in the way of this commonsense is Boris Johnson's zeal for Net Zero. But the prime minister’s resilience will not save him when the public is angry not over a few parties but over fuel bills they can’t pay and blackouts that chill their homes when both of these disasters are direct results of government policy.
Either Net-Zero goes, or he goes.