The news that Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak have received fines for attending a party at No 10 during the 2020 Covid lockdown, and that there may be more, has sparked calls for them both to resign. They are among the latest batch of 50 fines to be issued for breaking the lockdown laws, in which Carrie Johnson is also included. The response of both the prime minister and the chancellor has been to offer an apology and immediate payment of the fixed penalty notices, but they are so far refusing calls to resign.
Like so much in our recent political history, this seems to have divided the nation. A snap poll has found that 57 percent of the public think Johnson should resign; but disturbingly, 30 percent of people are content for him to stay in his role, even though 75 percent believe that Johnson knowingly lied when recounting the events.
Those who would excuse celebrations in No 10, from Conservative ministers to shoppers on the street speaking to the news channels, claim that it’s less relevant now, almost two years on; that lots of people broke the rules and were similarly fined, and that we now face the serious and urgent problems of the cost-of-living crisis and the war in Ukraine. What we need to do, according to them, is to move on, and let the government get on with the jobs in hand.
One rule for them
It is not, however, unprecedented for a new prime minister to step up during war time. WWI saw David Lloyd George take over from H H Asquith, and in WWII Winston Churchill assumed the role from Neville Chamberlain. Whatever Johnson is perceived to have done for Ukraine, it is in fact the secretary of State for defence, Ben Wallace, who has presided over the UK’s response to its call for arms.
Both Allegra Stratton and Neil Ferguson had to resign from posts as government advisors over Covid restrictions, and in Stratton’s case, because she was caught on camera joking about a Christmas party she allegedly didn’t even attend. Then there are the many thousands who lost loved ones without being able to say goodbye, or to mourn them as they would wish, because they abided by the rules set by Johnson, Sunak and their government colleagues. Not least among those was the Queen who mourned Prince Philip alone.
Our current democratic system is such that only a majority of sitting MPs can force Johnson out of office, by submitting requests for a vote of no confidence. This seems unlikely, with a Conservative majority of almost 80 seats, especially now that Sunak’s popularity has fallen with the revelations about his wife’s tax status and his own possession of a Green Card, allowing him US citizenship, kept until 18 months after his appointment as chancellor. With local elections looming next month, the government will want to be seen as a strong brand.
So what would arguably have finished the careers of previous prime ministers is swept aside as irrelevant, even trivial, old news, and if the forthcoming elections uphold Conservative power, collective memory will bear that out. The government’s procrastination over the first and second lockdowns meant a crisis for the NHS in the spring and winter of 2020, and the UK’s death toll was the first in Europe to reach 150,000. If we are going to forgive mismanagement, and outright wrongdoing, when a new catastrophe arises, it is clearly in a bad government’s interest to cause or to fabricate further crises.
Aside from the practicalities, there are also the principles. The acceptance of public office and its many privileges also carries a weight of responsibility, enshrined in the seven principles of public life: selflessness; integrity; objectivity; accountability; openness; honesty and leadership. Johnson’s former boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, sounded warnings about the then-mayor’s lack of honesty in 2012. Like Donald Trump, Johnson’s populist leadership will be remembered for his breaking the law, and he is the first PM in office to have been found guilty of doing so.
We are at a point where we need to ask: to what standards do we hold ourselves and our leaders? It appears that millions of people in the UK are prepared to overlook the grossest insults to their integrity, and assaults on their standard of living, because they don’t connect the actions of government with any impact on their day-to-day lives. The fact that something is yesterday’s news, or happened to somebody else, seems to be enough to quiet the consciences of so many, and this appears to be cynically manipulated by those who would escape the consequences of their actions.
Good people need to do more than nothing in order to stop bad things from happening.