Thu 24 June 2021

Jonathan Lis explores the source of the Prime Minister’s untouchability

At moments of great political drama, we can often learn the most from what we discuss the least. Amidst the deepening chaos of the past week, something passed almost without comment.

The BBC and ITV both vouched that the Prime Minister had declared he would rather “let the bodies pile high in their thousands” than have a new Coronavirus lockdown.  Ordinarily, such remarks would end a premiership. The Prime Minister vowed that he had not made them and dispatched ministers to the airwaves to back that up. The nation’s leading political journalists were thus put in confrontation with the nation’s leaders: one of the two had to be lying.

Such a dispute has not taken place since the infamous row between the BBC and then Labour Government in 2003 over David Kelly. In normal times, it would dominate the airwaves for weeks. But these are not normal times.

We don’t need to ask whether it is Robert Peston and Laura Kuenssberg or Boris Johnson who is lying, because we already know and we are not surprised. Johnson’s subsequent denial at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday was greeted with a similar shrug. It scarcely matters that ministers are expected to resign if they mislead Parliament. Almost everyone believes that Johnson made those remarks, and most believe that he will get away with them.

This tells us something important. The crescendo of damaging stories is difficult to process, but the current flowing through them is only too familiar: this is a story of unadulterated contempt – and how we not only tolerate it, but expect it.

The Trail of Scandal

Each branch of the scandal yields a different strain of contempt.

The Prime Minister’s (apparent) remark about letting “bodies pile high” stung not only for its primal cruelty, but the basic indifference to human life. 150,000 people were not bodies and were not dispensable. But, of course, the gravest element is not that he (allegedly) said it but that he did it.

The Prime Minister refused to lockdown when urged to – not once or twice, but three times last year. He repeated the same mistakes and didn’t care. As a result, the UK has the highest COVID-19 death toll in Europe.

It is also a contempt for rules and due process. One of Dominic Cummings’s allegations from last week, now almost forgotten, is that Johnson tried to suspend a report into the ‘Chatty Rat’ lockdown leak as it implicated one of his fiancée’s friends. Johnson refuses a level of scrutiny that holds everyone equally accountable.

The Prime Minister’s greed and vanity spring from a similar source. Already we have forgotten about the £2.6 million casually thrown at the new Downing Street press briefing room for no reason at all but Johnson’s desire for status. He refuses to spend other people’s money increasing wages for nurses or helping hungry children to eat, but happily spends it on himself.

All of which leads us, inevitably, to wallpaper.

Of course there is something ludicrous in the idea that a Prime Minister might get away with unlawfully suspending Parliament, breaking an international treaty and causing the unnecessary deaths of thousands of his citizens, only to be brought down by an over-indulgent interior decoration. And yet, this is not, obviously, about wallpaper. It is about contempt for voters and contempt for the truth.

We have no idea how the Downing Street refurbishment was funded, when it was going to be revealed, or what may have been promised in return. We do know that hundreds of millions of pounds in contracts have been awarded to Conservative donors and friends, often on a fast-track, with the minimum of transparency and accountability. It is not cynical to ask basic questions.

Nor is this the first time that Johnson appears to have accepted favours. We still don’t know who funded his lavish holiday in Mustique 15 months ago.

Johnson’s response to the refurbishment scandal follows his normal strategy: to dismiss concerns and accuse the people asking questions of playing games or going mad. It is, in other words, gaslighting. The problem is not his for accepting someone else’s money and covering it up, but ours for finding out about it and seeking to know more.

It is self-evidently preposterous that the Prime Minister should declare, as he did yesterday that “I don’t think there’s anything to see here”, while the Electoral Commission has stated that “there are reasonable grounds to suspect… an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Embodiment of Contempt

No matter which thread we follow, everything leads us back to Boris Johnson’s character.

The jibe about Downing Street’s former “John Lewis furniture nightmare” speaks to a disdain for ordinary people and their aspiration. Johnson feigns concern for Britain’s ‘left-behind’ and energised them into voting against a metropolitan elite – but on a personal level he appears to find them disgusting and on a political level they are a means to an end. He has no interest in the people he is born to rule.

This attitude manifests itself in every policy and pronouncement.

When it comes to the Coronavirus, last week the Prime Minister suggested that the data paved the way for re-opening in June as planned, but he also said that scientists were “firmly of the view” that a third wave would come later this year. These statements are clearly contradictory. Johnson is interested neither in public welfare nor making difficult decisions, but rather in absolving himself of personal responsibility for whatever finally happens.

The Prime Minister is, at least, consistent. He does not modify his approach even when talking to the world’s most powerful leaders.

Last week, when addressing an international summit on climate change, he referred to “some expensive, politically-correct, green act of bunny hugging”, adding for good measure that “there’s nothing wrong with bunny hugging”. The words appeared improvised and jovial, as though calculated to reveal a lack of interest and preparation. Few individuals are endowed with the sheer hubris or entitlement that allows them to strut around the world stage with such studied carelessness.

Just like Donald Trump, Johnson is a narcissist seeking the next hit, entirely indifferent to the nation in his care and fully engaged in slow self-destruction. He is not here to do a good job but to test how much he can get away with. Because his solipsism requires that everything relates to him alone, an entire nation is subjugated to his self-advancement. He is not invincible, but will pile up any number of bodies to prove he is.

The music has moved on from Trump, but this is the only song Johnson knows.

The Political Culture

Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that this is not all about Boris Johnson. It is also about a political culture which facilitated his ascent and sustains his power.

Johnson knows that no other leader would talk in the way he does and that nobody else could get away with it – but he can only because we let him.

Part of that relates to his race and gender: consider the standards placed on women and people of minority backgrounds and whether they would remain similarly free of scrutiny or reproach. It is also, overwhelmingly, about class and the way we allow people to ignore rules depending on the way they look or sound.

Johnson’s greed and entitlement equips him perfectly for this culture. It is a political landscape which allows an old Etonian to cripple some people with austerity while claiming massive hand-outs for himself; to pile up bodies and be met with excuses or applause. He may be breaking one set of rules, but entirely obeying another.

In some ways it makes perfect sense that Johnson has seen his popularity rise in recent days. The less seriously he takes his job, the higher our respect for him. Like Trump not paying his taxes, Johnson is prepared to pollute standards and norms of decency, to stick his middle finger up to the system – and many people subjected to that system will welcome it.

People like ‘us’ exist to serve people like ‘him’, not the other way around: it is the founding convention of English history. The notion of egalitarianism or meritocracy is the modern outlier, not the new norm.

Johnson’s contempt is embedded in our culture. Why is it a breach of the Ministerial Code to fail to declare a donation but not to cause the deaths of 130,000 people? Why, if he gets brought down, will it be about expensive wallpaper and not pervasive misgovernment? The network of contempt is sustained not by individual misdemeanours but those individuals’ total conviction in their impunity. If someone believes he will never face the consequences it is because he never has.

Occasionally, our political culture will punish offenders and it may yet punish Johnson. But, more often that not, it will reward them. Whether or not Johnson survives, his contempt will long outlive him. And one day we may just ask ourselves why we don’t expect anything better.

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