IT HAS been remarked that it was a trivial matter that brought Boris Johnson down at last; but the bigger the fault, the easier he found it to divert attention and avoid personal liability. It is fitting that he was ousted in the end for lying. It remains imponderable that he was elected for the same reason. The list of large faults is easy to begin, hard to conclude. It contains, among other things, the long-term damage to the UK’s economy and international relations caused by Brexit; the threatened break-up of the Union as a consequence; the lives lost in the Covid pandemic through indecision and chaos; the jeopardising of the Good Friday Agreement by an erratic and belligerent approach to the EU; the narrowing of the criteria for preferment, making loyalty of greater value than competence — and, including the removal of ministers if their competence was interpreted as rivalry; the courting of the right wing of the Conservative Party with ill-thought-out populist gestures; the shrugging off of the country’s responsibility to asylum-seekers; the flash-in-the-pan interest in climate change; the diverting of UK aid; and on and on.
Most seriously, of course, is the damage that Mr Johnson has done to public standards and trust. By lying so willingly, so automatically, and so blatantly — his refusal to correct errors of fact even when reprimanded by officials became notorious — he has made the UK less governable. He further degraded politics by smearing opponents and dragooning colleagues to parrot his lies. The unity and generosity with which the country met the Covid threat was squandered by Partygate. His fixation on a bluff, vague fantasy of an ever-more prosperous future, in which even he could not have believed, undermined any chance that the Government might have of persuading the country to meet the present financial crisis with honesty, restraint, and sacrifice.
Mr Johnson has been drummed out of office in disgrace. There is no doubt about this. And yet it does not look like disgrace, not least because he is still in 10 Downing Street. And this matters. It adds to the otherworldliness of the sales pitches by his would-be successors, as each attempts to give the impression of having had no part in the Government’s chaotic performance up till now.
Worse, it does not rule out a return to power for Mr Johnson in the future. “If I had my time again. . . ,” he said last Tuesday, shortly before the wave of resignations began. He was referring to the decision not to reprimand Christopher Pincher MP when at the Foreign Office (a lapse of judgement which would most probably have got Mr Johnson suspended had he been a serving bishop). But examples from around the world suggest that electorates can be worryingly forgetful and distressingly persuadable. There is another Marcos in charge of the Philippines; Donald Trump remains at liberty. The cleansing of the temple at Westminster, if it is ever to get clean and stay clean, will require more than a light brushing over with the soft brooms currently being wielded by the Conservative leadership candidates. Tables need to be overturned.