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Paul Vallely: Boris Johnson awaits the voters’ verdict

22 April 2022

A law-breaking PM is an electoral liability, says Paul Vallely

Alamy

Protesters outside Downing Street, on Wednesday

Protesters outside Downing Street, on Wednesday

THE Archbishop of Canterbury grabbed the headlines on Easter Day with his critique of the government’s plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Interestingly, he was widely quoted as having condemned it as “ungodly” — a word that he didn’t use. What he actually said was that the proposal was “the opposite of the nature of God”. A better one-word summary of that might be “satanic”, but that was probably a bridge too far for the Tory tabloids.

The Rwanda plan — like the proposal to sell off Channel 4, the premature lifting of Covid precautions, or the Jimmy Savile smears against Sir Keir Starmer — is yet another attempt by Boris Johnson to offer “red meat” to Conservative backwoodsmen and simultaneously divert the public from the real issue.

The real issue was highlighted in another Easter sermon, when the Archbishop of York asked: “Do we want to be known for the robustness of our democracy, where those in public life live to the highest standards, and where we can trust those who lead us to behave with integrity and honour?”

For the first time in British history, we have a Prime Minister who has been penalised for breaking the law while in office. Yet there is no consensus on how to respond to this.

On the one side, growing numbers of voters are outraged; a recent poll on Mr Johnson for The Times recorded 72 per cent of responses as negative; the single most common word used of him was “liar”; a mere 16 per cent of respondents used positive language.

On the other side, loyalist Conservative ministers and backbenchers insist that Mr Johnson’s offence is comparatively trivial and that — with an escalating war in Ukraine and a cost-of-living crisis — there are far more important things to worry about. Jacob Rees-Mogg even described the ministerial code — which demands the resignation of any minister who has intentionally misled Parliament — as a “set of guidelines” of little “constitutional significance”.

Yet it is only Conservative MPs whose views count in the matter (until the next General Election, at any rate). What might align their views with those of the general public? I suspect that only a drip-drip-drip of further revelations will do that.

That process is well under way. Archbishop Cottrell’s call for a return to the highest standards of integrity and honour was matched by the verdict of the constitutional historian Lord Hennessy, a measured and authoritative voice that this week became impassioned. Mr Johnson’s decision not to resign, he declared, had “sullied” his office, showing “complete and utter disdain for the decency of our constitutional conventions”.

Lord Hennessy concluded: “The Queen’s First Minister is now beyond doubt a rogue Prime Minister, unworthy of her, her Parliament, her people, and her kingdom. I cannot remember a day when I have been more fearful for the well-being of the constitution.”

The Metropolitan Police is investigating 12 breaches of the Covid rules, and further fines for Mr Johnson are said to be likely. Next month’s local elections will allow voters a verdict. Then will come the unexpurgated Sue Gray report. The drip-drip-drip will continue. Eventually, the majority of Tory MPs must surely come to see that a Crime Minister is an electoral liability.

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