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Boris Johnson’s Tenure is Disastrous Enough: Spare Us the Pretence that it Surprises You

Musa Okwonga lays the blame for the Prime Minister’s lawless rule squarely on the shoulders of the Conservative politicians and pundits who promoted him

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May alongside then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson in May 2017

Boris Johnson’s Tenure is Disastrous EnoughSpare Us the Pretence that it Surprises You

Musa Okwonga lays the blame for the Prime Minister’s lawless rule squarely on the shoulders of the Conservative politicians and pundits who promoted him

It was several years ago that Boris Johnson made clear his contempt for the lives of others. Whilst serving as Foreign Secretary, a role to which he was appointed by the then Prime Minister Theresa May, Boris Johnson joked about those who had died in conflict in Libya. He contended that the town of Sirte could be turned into the new Dubai, remarking that “The only thing they’ve got to do is clear the dead bodies away”. His remarks were met with some outrage and a mild censure from May, but nothing more.

A few years later, having been elected leader of his country, he made similarly flippant comments: this time, about British citizens who would lose their lives due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On this occasion, when asked whether he should consider calling for a nationwide lockdown, he was heard to state that he would rather “let the bodies pile high”.

Johnson has long been consistent in his callousness towards the dead, and very specific about the imagery that he found so amusing. It was to be expected that he would end up being indifferent to the suffering of others in a pandemic. 

The real question is why his colleagues in the Conservative Party are so surprised at the kind of leader he has become – or, at least, why they pretend to be.


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To answer that, we need only look at Theresa May, whose criticism of Boris Johnson has been viewed in several quarters as decisive. Her observations were precise and powerful – even, as one respected commentator described them, absolutely devastating. They should also be viewed as little more than the beginning of her atonement, given that she is someone who significantly elevated him towards power in the first place

It serves her and her party to distance herself from Johnson now, or else they will be asked uncomfortable questions about why they supported someone so obviously unfit for public office. May herself was perhaps fortunate to have had a senior political career at all, given that she previously presided over the scandal at Yarl’s Wood detention centre: a situation where, despite allegations of abuse, sexual exploitation and rape at the centre, she extended the contract of the service provider there. Yet May and Johnson differ in that she was raised to power for her enforcement of draconian rules, while he was apparently brought to power in order to shatter democratic norms. In both of these respects, they have been effective; and Johnson, spectacularly so. 

Indeed, Johnson has been so effective that it is strange to see some members of his party now complaining about how that success is perceived.

Sebastian Payne, the Whitehall editor for the Financial Times, reported that an anonymous Conservative politician had lamented to him that “he’s made us all look corrupt and made the country feel like fools”. This sentiment, if honestly expressed, appears breathtaking in its naivety, given that the Government’s method of procuring PPE contracts has recently been ruled to be illegal. It is also a convenient thing to express, a way to absolve themselves of connection with this grotesque mess. The Conservatives know that if voters expect them to produce more leaders like Johnson, leaders who will willingly party while their voters are forced to mourn their loved ones at a distance, then it could and should put them out of power for a generation.

The problem for them is that Johnson’s history of deceit is well-documented. It is not only his defining characteristic, it is practically his badge of honour. Having been given endless second chances it was only logical that, once elected to the country’s highest office, he would increase the scale and frequency of his wrongdoing. The Conservative Party’s campaign in the 2019 General Election was a perfect extension of his ego, in that it was promoted by a series of Facebook advertisements that were almost entirely misleading

There is now apparently widespread revulsion within the Conservative Party at Johnson’s use of a baseless far-right slur against Sir Keir Starmer, the leader of the Labour Party.

They seemingly think it is outrageous and they are apparently appalled that he will not listen to advice. Their dramatic expressions of disgust – mostly anonymous, of course, because how many apart from a chastened few want to do the decent thing of actually risking their jobs – are not only frustrating, they are also offensive to the intelligence. Johnson is a man whose explicit brand is to do anything that he believes it will take in order to win.

You cannot sign up to support a man who chases success at any cost, and then claim that it is beneath you when he does exactly that. 

One of the most revealing moments of the last few months came when Robert Colvile, who co-wrote the Conservative Party’s manifesto for that election, reacted with horror to an article about Johnson in the New York Times. That article, with forensic detail, laid out the sharply authoritarian direction taken by Johnson’s government.

From one perspective, Colvile’s revulsion made perfect sense. Who would want to be associated with a leadership who was so enthusiastic about sabotaging the rule of law? Who would want to look so carefully in the mirror?

For the country to get any better, the people who so enthusiastically co-signed Johnson must be voted out. In the meantime, Boris Johnson is entitled to feel a little baffled at the fury that is emerging from several areas of his party. Why are they pretending to be so surprised that he is pursuing such a cruel, reckless, and callous course? He is, after all, only behaving precisely as he promised he would.

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