[This article appears in the Christmas edition of that wonderful Catholic weekly The Tablet: do consider checking the magazine out and subscribing if you like what you see]
-Do these names ring any bells: Tim Yeo, Allan Stewart, Hartley Booth, David Trevinnick, Graham Riddick, Tim Smith, Patrick Nicholls? They were just some of the bit-part players in the great Tory sleaze crisis of the mid 1990s, widely believed to have combined with economic mismanagement to guarantee the Party’s huge defeat in 1997. The big beasts in that Conservative calamity – whose names you are more likely to remember – included Cecil Parkinson, David Mellor, Norman Lamont, and this is before we even get to those who were forced out of office for stupid words rather than suspect deeds, amongst them Edwina Currie (salmonella rife in eggs) and Nicholas Ridley (can’t stand the Germans). Every day seemed to bring a new story of infamy in high office.
It might be thought that little has changed since this last time the Conservatives enjoyed a similarly lengthy period in office. Owen Paterson is today’s Neil Hamilton, protesting his innocence while he pockets cash, not for questions this time but for influence. Matt Hancock kisses his girlfriend in the way that Piers Merchant kissed his wife in a gruesome public display of fidelity shortly after news of the affair that was to end his career had broken. Boris Johnson is, however, no John Major. The current prime minister is himself an epitome of the moral emptiness that in that earlier era brought men down. And yet he remains in post. Here is surely a material break with the past. Wrong produces sniggering not the sack, contriteness merely simulated while the next ruse is pondered.
The impunity feels real this time. Public culture seems genuinely to have changed, with the prime minister the beneficiary of a now prevailing public taste in which celebrity is everything and immoral behaviour counts for nothing. News rushes at such high speed that little holds the imagination for longer than a nano-second. What matters are not the details any more but rather the overall narrative – and so far as Johnson is concerned that has up to just very recently proved remarkably durable; he has remained that lively bloke from the telly who is really one of us, cheating and lying like the rest of us, as he knows, and (crucially) as he also knows that we know.
At his best, it is that disbelieving twinkle in his eye as he utters the latest ludicrous promise (forty new hospitals! a tunnel to Northern Ireland!) or lie (no trade barriers whatsoever!), that detachment from himself as he plays the role of leader for the cameras, that has consolidated his grip on enough of the electorate for him to count as highly successful. It helps too to have policies that work for closet and explicit racists, the rich who fund his Party, and the foreign media bosses who propagandise for him in their newspapers. Johnson has never taken a brave political decision in his life. Whether it is to a wife, a girlfriend, a political associate or the public, Johnson lies to please – with the goal of pleasing himself.
But is the spell still working? Boris Johnson’s grip on office is clearly loosening by the day and if he is gone or nearly gone by the New Year it will have been a combination of Tory mistrust and establishment retaliation that will have seen him off, albeit both will still need to be propelled by a collapse in public esteem which at the time of writing has not – yet – holed the Prime Minister below his political waterline.
Tory mistrust is easy to understand; by all accounts Mr Johnson’s only claim to their loyalty has been his capacity to win their elections for them. His lack of any deep relationships rooted in mutual loyalty is becoming an increasingly evident weakness, and very different from John Major who attracted (and retained) intense personal loyalty. For its part, the ‘establishment’ currently ensnaring Johnson is surprisingly new, a creature of changes wrought by the Major and Blair administrations rather than something with us from the time of Bagehot. The Nolan principles were Major’s riposte to his problems with sleaze, and ethics watchdogs and standards advisers and so on have in the years since become a central part of governing in Whitehall. In 2015, the then ‘Director General Propriety and Ethics’ Sue Gray was memorably described as the ‘most powerful civil servant you’ve never heard off’. These are the people that Johnson now strives to shake off, the Alex Allan’s (resigned), the Lord Geidt’s (in post but at the time of writing considering his position) and the Kathryn Stone’s (hanging in there). He wants to reshape public discourse in his own image, returning to a time when prime ministers enjoyed the fruits of office without the cares of accountability, a new Walpole perhaps (Robert, not Horace – you have to go back a long way to find a Prime Minister as willing as Johnson to trample on public rectitude for personal advantage).
There is a wider dimension to this, as there was in the mid-1990s. I wrote about this aspect to the sleaze crisis in ‘The Party in Government’, an essay for the London Review of Books that appeared in March 1995:
‘The corruption of this long era of Conservative rule extends beyond personal venality. Though loudly committed to the rule of law, especially when it meant ruining the unions in the early Eighties, the Government has found its own actions frequently castigated as unlawful in the British courts, and pilloried in Strasbourg for the infringement of human rights. Its response has been to contrive legal ruses the effect of which has been often to place it quite literally above the law. The contempt towards one great limb of the British Constitution has been matched by the scorn it has shown towards another for which it has also affected respect. The Government’s cynical control of the Commons and its contemptuous disregard of the Lords have allowed it singlehandedly to turn Britain into the impoverished and unequal national that it now finds itself to be.’
During his still brief time in office, Johnson has gone much further than his predecessors, exposing as empty such supposedly entrenched aspects of the unwritten constitution as the imperative of insulating the Queen from politics (the unlawful prorogation of parliament), and the importance of respecting the will of the devolved legislatures (the Sewel Convention). He has deepened the usual Tory threats to destroy the BBC while seeking to place his own creatures in positions intended to be independent (Paul Dacre a recent (failed) example; William Shawcross in charge of the Prevent review; the Brexiteer Gisela Stuart as civil service commissioner). His government has proposed changes to the electoral law that will both make its retention of power easier while at the same time stripping the electoral commission of many of the powers of oversight that it currently enjoys and of which recently he has been a target (the refurbishment of his flat in Downing Street).
The most recently opened fronts are against the rule of law and human rights. The Justice Secretary Dominic Raab wants to emasculate the Human Rights Act (one of the Blair administration’s most important achievements) and the government appears to have recently hinted at a power to overturn specific rulings of the courts of which they disapprove and/or which they judge inconvenient. Perpetually mocked by Johnson’s English administration, Scotland’s threat to secede may soon come to fruition, while Northern Ireland’s constitutional right to clear off into the Republic of Ireland gathers support by the day (north of the Border anyway). I never thought that the weaknesses that have been obvious in the UK’s unwritten constitution that I have been teaching for decades would eventually destroy the country – but that does appear to be what is happening under Johnson’s watch. Here is a far deeper malaise than any experienced in the 1980s.
Will the Johnson project succeed? Its weakness is the same as that which dogs all populists: the only coherent policy it possesses is the accumulation of power for its own sake, not for any particular purpose. Johnson and his gang are fast running out of people they can blame for their indecision, indirection and vacuity on everything except their own interests and the retention of their own power. There are clear signs that that section of the public once so mesmerized by Johnson are tiring of him. Freed of their dependence on him for their seats, the wrath of the scorned Tory MPs will be compelling to watch. The quiet guard dogs protecting the constitution may finally manage to bite as well as bark. But unless the downfall of Johnson precipitates dramatic constitutional change – proportional representation; a formalisation of checks and balances; a clamping down on the influence of money in politics; a reckoning with the country’s colonial past – we will be once again back where we are now before too long, the constitutionally ‘impoverished and unequal country’ that I wrote about twenty-seven years ago.