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by James Mitchell
08 June 2022
Political purgatory: After partygate, will anyone clean up?

Boris Johnson survived a vote of no confidence

Political purgatory: After partygate, will anyone clean up?

'There is ample evidence across the United Kingdom that something is fundamentally wrong'

Too much was riding on the outcome of Monday’s confidence vote on Boris Johnson. The result was never likely to draw a line under anything. We are stuck in political purgatory, somewhere between purging ourselves of this egomaniacal Prime Minister but short of his everlasting damnation or approaching what for some would be the political paradise of a new leader. Instead, Tory MPs have lacerated their leader, leaving him seriously damaged but unrepentant. Perhaps many thought that a good caning was all that was needed.   

His past behaviour shows no sign that he will change. From an early age he learned that talk is cheap. That becomes all too obvious from reading Just Boris, the 2011 biography by Sonia Purnell, who worked alongside him as a journalist. However, her conclusion remains largely correct in light of the last decade: “He is prone to indulgent attention-seeking, bears grudges aplenty and so often seems to favour the frivolous over the serious, the rich and powerful over the humble, the quick-fix publicity stunt over a longer-lasting achievement, a monologue to genuine conversation, or a convenient evasion over an awkward truth. He is never dull but still seems to lack vision, moral convictions or any real empathy with those outside his charmed circles of Eton and Oxford. Complicated, surprising and inspiring, he is the most interesting public figure in Britain today. In short, he has the gifts and the artistry to be the ‘break-the-mould leader’ that the country so desperately needs but he is capable of much, much more than he gives – indeed, he disappoints far more than he offends.” 

He has not matured as premier. He may be charismatic but that hardly fills the gaping holes required in a leader. But Purnell’s view needs revision in one crucial respect – he offends far more than he disappoints. 

Peter Hennessy, one of the shrewdest close-hand observers of Westminster and Whitehall, refers to a “bonfire of the decencies” under Johnson and that this has exposed the “fragility of the constitution”. 

All Tory MPs must be aware of the “bonfire of decencies”. About 40 per cent could see the need to replace what Hennessy describes as the “number one wrong ‘un’” with a “good chap of either sex”, as the veteran Whitehall watcher put it, but few Tory MPs, if any, acknowledge that Johnson has exposed fundamental weaknesses in a system of government that allow Johnson to get and keep the keys to No.10? 

Johnson is an accident that has long been waiting to happen and, without reforms, will happen again. However, whether or not the coming weeks and months lead to a change of prime minister – and there are many challenges ahead which would test even the most competent prime minister – the notion that all that is required is a change at the top informs most analysis whatever party political perspective. Johnson will stagger on. The result was anything but ‘conclusive and decisive’ as he claimed. Plotting and scheming will continue and main players inside the Conservative Party will continue to jockey for position while the country faces challenges across a range of fronts. 

This situation ought to be perfect for opposition parties. Labour has pulled ahead of the Tories but not as much as might be expected. Similarly, the SNP and support for independence has stalled. Keir Starmer comes over in many ways as the antithesis of Johnson. But there is still something wanting. His self-control might contrast with Johnson’s indiscipline but if he is just one of Hennessy’s “good chaps” then we might have a period of good government but with the prospect that it might all revert to a “bad ‘un’” in the future. What would a Starmer government actually do? What is his vision? Does it come down to a ’safe pair of hands’ and a more honest, competent government? Relatively appealing as this is, it does not inspire – and note Purnell, Johnson’s biographer’s comment about her subject: “Complicated, surprising and inspiring, he is the most interesting public figure in Britain today…. he has the gifts and the artistry to be the ‘break-the-mould leader’ that the country so desperately needs.” 

Even the SNP, which derives so much support from Johnson’s premiership, offers little more than a Scottish version of the “good chap of either sex” system of government, a power hoarding leader elected on a minority share of the vote enabled and empowered by a weak parliament. Little thought is being given to the system of government.   

There is ample evidence across the United Kingdom that something is fundamentally wrong. Sturgeon’s SNP may be incapable of taking advantage of the unique opportunity of Johnson’s premiership but it shows little sign of knowing how to address the challenges it faces. It wants to replace a British “good chaps” model of government with a Scottish one.  The grievances fuelling demand for independence are not so different from those across Britain including most obviously the “red wall” seats. It is not geographic distance from the seat of power that is the problem. Plenty of communities within easy distance of Westminster feel as distant from the seat of power, a sense of being left behind and ignored as any in Scotland. 

As we focus on the personalities, infractions and deceit of individuals, as we should, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. Our system of government lacks the necessary checks and balances, institutional pluralism and reinvigoration of democracy required. We created devolved government that now mimics Westminster. UK and Scottish Governments engage is blame games and one-upmanship, each seeking to grab power from other levels of government as an end in itself. Neither offers a vision of governance that comes close to meeting the challenges faced. Personality driven politics may offer amusement, endless speculation who will be kicked out of the big house but this is not really its purpose. 

@ProfJMitchell 

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