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It’s come to something when there’s more accountability in a hereditary monarchy than in our elected government. Even in Buckingham Palace there are consequences for one’s actions, as Prince Andrew learned on Thursday, when he was stripped of his sort-of jobs. In the Palace of Westminster, not so much.
The contrast could hardly be sharper. On one side, a Queen so determined to show that she was not above the rules that she grieved alone as she buried the man she had loved for 73 years. On the other, a prime minister running Downing Street like a frat house, where bottles were reportedly brought in by the suitcase and they danced in the basement even on the eve of that austere royal funeral, even in the midst of a lockdown.
And yet, Johnson remains in his post, his titles still his to use. There’s confident chatter, briefed to the papers, that he’ll get away with it. His team is already spinning in advance the report of the civil service inquisitor, Sue Gray, suggesting that she will find no criminal wrongdoing – deliberately misunderstanding the role of her inquiry – thereby setting the bar sufficiently low for Johnson to say he has cleared it and we should all move on.
Meanwhile his supporters, and even some of his opponents, are working out what serves them best: to push him out or let him stay. There are Tories looking at the calendar, asking if the local elections in May might be the moment. There are Labour folk wondering if it might help to have a weakened Johnson to punch at from now until the next general election.
I understand all those calculations. But what does it mean for our system if he is allowed to hold on? What does it say about us?
What, for example, would it say about our perennial brag that we are a society subject to the rule of law that the man who sets the rules is allowed to break them and break them so egregiously? I know it’s hard to keep track, but the party we were all focused on before the revelation of the basement disco was the one on 20 May 2020, when lockdown was still a relative novelty and most Britons were policing themselves with extraordinary self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Johnson says he went to that garden party, attended by his wife and some of her friends, where the gin and rosé flowed, and thought he was at a “work event”. No one in their right mind believes that is true. But if he stays in his job, we are saying that we accept it.
What will it say about the supposedly unbreakable convention that a minister who lies to or misleads the House of Commons has to resign? Johnson was guilty of that on Wednesday with that “work event” nonsense, but it was hardly the first time. On 1 December last year, when grilled about whichever of the seemingly daily Downing Street parties had just been revealed, Johnson told MPs “all guidance was followed completely in No 10”. That was obviously untrue, and he must have known it was untrue because he had attended just such a rule-breaking party himself, back on 20 May 2020. Whatever elaborate get-out he tries to construct, we can all see the truth. If Johnson’s lie goes unpunished, a convention that evolved in order to allow the public to feel a basic level of trust in their government will have been shattered.
That will damage our democratic health, but what will it mean for our literal health if Johnson is allowed to stay? Should there be a grave new variant of this disease, one that demands a return to full lockdown, it’s clear that he could not impose it. The country would simply refuse to take instruction from a man who so flagrantly laughed in their face last time. Indeed, it’s not clear any government could ever again impose such restrictions: the electorate might well conclude from this episode that all politicians and their officials are as hypocritical as the current gang inside No 10 and refuse to comply. That is a grim possibility. But with Johnson himself, it is certain. The country cannot navigate a public health crisis with this man at the helm. If that was true of Matt Hancock snogging his lover – a point Johnson conceded when he accepted Hancock’s resignation – then it is a hundred times truer of him.
Of course, there were multiple reasons for Johnson to be removed, even before we knew he had turned Downing Street into the Studio 54 of Whitehall. On Wednesday, the high court found that the government’s use of a “VIP lane” for the allocation of lucrative PPE contracts during the first wave of the pandemic was unlawful, exposing to the light once more a pattern of behaviour that, were it spotted in any other country but ours, we would call corruption. What does it say about us that no one thinks for a minute that Johnson will be pushed out over any of that?
There will be many now hoping that Sue Gray will ride to the rescue, that in calm, mandarin prose she will pronounce the prime minister unambiguously guilty. But it’s a fantasy, just as it was a fantasy to expect Robert Mueller to topple Donald Trump over collusion with Russia, or Robin Butler to remove Tony Blair over Iraq. I spoke to Lord Butler on Friday, and he reminded me that inquiries of this kind are not about declaring guilt or innocence, but solely about establishing the facts. He believes Gray will set out “what happened. It’s then for other people to reach judgments.” Those others will include the police, who will determine whether there is evidence of criminal activity. That’s their job, not Gray’s. Which is why it’s so dishonest of Downing Street to be briefing that the civil servant will rule on a question she has not been asked.
Johnson’s fate will be decided not by her, but by politics: initially by MPs and, if necessary, by the people. Johnson’s former editor at the Telegraph, Max Hastings, once wrote that if Johnson, a man he believed “would not recognise truth if confronted by it in an identity parade” became prime minister, it would demonstrate that Britain was no longer “a serious country”. If we allow Johnson to stay as prime minister, given all that he’s done and all that we’ve seen, it would say something far, far worse.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist
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