Johnson Will Try to ‘Burn Everything to the Ground’Because He Can
As the Prime Minister’s actions have repeatedly shown, elaborate conventions and procedures mask the features that fundamentally undermine democracy in British politics, says Sam Bright
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The thick, stagnant air around Downing Street is quivering this morning, as proverbial projectiles continue to be launched by Boris Johnson’s opponents. The gold leaf wallpaper is peeling off and the wine glasses have tipped over, but the Prime Minister remains in his bunker, wounded but not slain.
Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid and a host of more junior figures have abandoned their posts, hoping that Johnson would be sucked into the political vacuum of their creating. Instead, the Prime Minister has pledged to fight on – a lone man hobbling through barbed wire towards the cross-hairs of enemy lines.
The coup may yet succeed, but the fact that the Prime Minister can still remain in place, despite losing the support of 40% of his MPs and several key Cabinet ministers, reveals something altogether disturbing about the concentration of power in British politics.
“Are you planning on telling us the truth today?” was the opening question directed at the Prime Minister’s spokesperson, as he opened yesterday’s briefing for political (lobby) journalists.
Over the past few days, both Johnson’s spokesperson and his deputy have claimed that the Prime Minister had no specific knowledge of ex-Conservative MP Chris Pincher’s history of groping, before he was appointed by Johnson as the deputy chief whip in February 2022.
This has now been proven false, with the former Foreign Office Permanent Secretary Simon McDonald claiming that Johnson – then Foreign Secretary – was “briefed in person” about complaints involving Pincher in the summer of 2019.
Pincher resigned from his official role last week, after new allegations emerged over his conduct, and the Conservative whip was removed, leaving the Tamworth MP to sit in the House of Commons as an independent.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Ellis responded to an urgent question by Labour’s Angela Rayner by claiming that Johnson “did not immediately recall the conversation in late 2019 about this incident” – hence the repeated lies told to journalists in recent days.
Pincher’s repeated transgressions appear to have been covered up or conveniently forgotten, yet no one has yet resigned or faced genuine accountability for the institutional concealment that cleared the tracks for his elevation to a senior ministerial role.
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Indeed, it’s not true to say that accountability has been entirely absent in the domino-ring of scandals that have engulfed British politics over the past couple of years. Rather, those held culpable all match the profile of Pincher: influential but not at the top of the hierarchy; directly responsible for a crime but not for the institutional culture that allowed it to occur, nor for the cover up.
Owen Paterson, Allegra Stratton, Matt Hancock, Neil Parish, David Warburton – all of these individuals committed offences, in some cases egregious offences – but their demise in public life does not match the scale of corruption, mendacity and law-breaking that has reached into Whitehall’s highest offices since Johnson became Prime Minister in July 2019.
It feels as though the drug runners have been convicted while the mob bosses remain at large.
As has been illuminated in these pages and elsewhere, Johnson and his consiglieres have used the architecture of the British political system to hide from the politically fatal repercussions of their actions. The Prime Minister is essentially self-regulating, beholden only to his conscience, the mood of his political party, and the outcomes of occasional general elections.
Even the Cabinet, as demonstrated last night, does not have the power to topple a prime minister – despite the inhabitant of Downing Street ostensibly being the first among equals.
British politics relies on the ‘good chaps’ theory of government, as described by Peter Hennessy, whereby the executive is exempt from formal codes of behaviour and accompanying punishments – risking moral decline and even autocracy if the prime minister does not uphold high virtues in office.
Johnson’s survival has also been assisted – as in the mafia complex – by an absence of viable rivals for his turf. The closer that Cabinet ministers cling to Johnson, the more they are protected by his constitutional power. In the moral maelstrom of the last two years, they have sought refuge inside this protective bubble – ironically limiting their ability to dethrone the conniving king.
Yesterday, both Sunak and Javid used their resignation letters to cite the “standards” that Johnson had failed to uphold in office. Why they didn’t resign sooner – when Johnson lied to Parliament about parties held in Downing Street during lockdown, or when he awarded billions in contracts to Conservative donors, or when he attempted to pursue a number of illegal policies – is unclear.
The Ministerial Code is supposed to be the moral handbook for prime ministers, underpinned by the Nolan Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership.
However, breaches of the code are adjudicated by the prime minister – in this case Boris Johnson, who recently rewrote the code to remove all references in the foreword to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability, and to remove the clause stipulating that a breach of the code should prompt the resignation of the culpable minister.
The prime minister’s application and behaviour under the code is overseen by an ethics advisor – a position held until 15 June by Lord Christopher Geidt, who resigned by saying that he “could not be a party to advising on any potential law-breaking”. Johnson was issued with a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police on 12 April for breaching COVID lockdown rules, and Geidt suggested that it was “reasonable” to suggest that Johnson may therefore have violated the Ministerial Code.
Lord Geidt had taken over the role from Sir Alex Allan, who resigned in November 2020 after Johnson refused to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite an official investigation concluding that she had bullied civil servants.
While the ethics advisor may resign at a time of their choosing, this appears to be the limit of their independence. They can only initiate investigations with the consent of the prime minister, and – as witnessed in the case of Patel – their conclusions are not binding.
Last week, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case was asked by MPs whether there would be an investigation into reports that Johnson attempted to install his then-mistress-now-wife Carrie Symonds into a £100,000 a year role when he was Foreign Secretary. Case responded that “any investigation under the Ministerial Code can only be authorised by the PM”. In other words: there won’t be an investigation.
In this same sitting, Case revealed for the first time that both he and the Prime Minister’s spokesperson are facing disciplinary proceedings for their role in the ‘Partygate’ scandal – the latter for misleading political journalists by claiming that no parties occurred in Downing Street and that all the rules were followed.
Fortunately for the spokesperson, who appears to have made a habit of lying to the lobby, misleading the media “is not automatically a breach of the Civil Service code”, according to Case – the highest-ranking civil servant in Whitehall.
The Mother of All Parliaments Myth
There are several other ways in which British democracy offers platitudes where strong constitutional safeguards should exist.
Simon Case’s confessional also included the detail that former Department of Health and Social Care non-executive director Gina Coladangelo had failed to declare her personal links to then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock – they attended university together – when she was appointed to the £15,000 a year role. Hancock was forced to resign when footage emerged of him engaged in an intimate moment with Coladangelo during a period of lockdown restrictions.
There are virtually no repercussions for suppressing financial or personal conflicts of interest, for those at the sharp end of government. Sunak, for example, didn’t declare his wife’s financial interest in the firm Infosys, which controversially retained a business presence in India even after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
In fact, our system allows ministers to shield their financial interests from public view by deploying a ‘blind trust’ arrangement, whereby they hold shares in companies but are removed from the management of their investments. This is a mechanism that has been deployed by Sunak – whose family fortune stretches beyond £700 million – to prevent his investments from being seen by the wider public.
Meanwhile, ministers are able to use private companies as a buffer from scrutiny – with new Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi concealing £1.3 million in payments from an oil company by processing the payments through his self-titled consultancy firm ‘Zahawi & Zahawi’.
Peter Jukes explains why the ongoing scandal about lockdown-breaking parties hit the Prime Minister’s core appeal more than crony contracts, personal expenses or his handling of the Coronavirus crisis
So, while ministers periodically declare their financial and personal interests – giving the appearance of transparency and probity – there are ways in which damaging information can be kept off the books.
Similar obscurity can be seen in the case of government contracts, that contain no information on conflicts of interest when they are released to the public. This includes the £3 billion in COVID contracts awarded to Conservative Party donors and associates – conflicts of interest that were only revealed thanks to the investigative work of Byline Times, The Citizens and others.
In fact, legal proceedings have been required to release the names of the ministers, MPs and officials who referred companies to the notorious ‘VIP lane’ for expedited personal protective equipment contracts. This protracted process revealed that Michael Gove’s office had referred a firm with a co-owner who has personally donated to Gove and acted as the finance chair for his unsuccessful Conservative leadership bid in 2016.
Next, there is Freedom of Information (FOI) legislation, which is supposed to ensure access to official records – for example, internal government documents and correspondence – the release of which would be within the public interest.
However, in recent years, and particularly since Boris Johnson came to power in July 2019, this has been stymied.
Byline Times has recently been denied access to information related to Johnson’s meetings with Cambridge Analytica in 2016, and to information about his meetings with ‘business leaders’ and newspaper barons at the outset of the pandemic. The Times has been refused access to the details of talks between a Conservative donor – the one who funded Johnson’s £200,000 Downing Street flat upgrade – and the former Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.
A secretive ‘clearing house’ has been established in the Cabinet Office that effectively blocks FOI releases to selected reporters and campaigners – and tens of thousands of pounds has been spent in an attempt to shield the clearing house from scrutiny.
Finally, the epicentre is Parliament itself – where, in the House of Commons, Johnson can lie with impunity while those who accuse him of deceit are ejected from the chamber.
Parliament’s elaborate system of committees, debates and procedures projects the illusion of democracy – sustaining the ‘Mother of all Parliaments’ myth. In reality, our ‘first past the post’ voting system works against opposition parties and delivers majorities that allow authoritarian leaders to ignore dissenting opinion.
Harsh words are the only constraint on executive power in Parliament, and even those are tempered by the conventions of parliamentary decorum.
One former aide has described Johnson’s current mentality as “scorched earth policy” in which “you’re retreating and you burn everything to the ground as you go”. And he will try desperately to burn everything to the ground – because, as history has shown, he can.