In Boris Johnson’s resignation speech we saw the pathological narcissism up close and raw – the ‘victim’ mindset, the petulant resentment, the vacuum where remorse and responsibility should be, the vindictive casting about for culprits like the “the herd” to blame for his downfall, and the arrogant contempt for his critics. These are the responses of a man who has had his own way throughout his privileged life and isn’t accustomed to the feeling of being unable to wriggle out of the net created by his own failures.
Dangerously flawed though Johnson’s character is, the assumption is that his resignation is a healthy demonstration of UK democracy flexing its muscles – when deviant populists emerge we can rest assured that British good sense will eventually join ranks with the good chaps of government to remove them.
Wise voters and good chaps
The idea here is that our democratic rights are protected by the responsiveness of government to the electorate – Johnson has fallen from grace, the government understands this and so, in response to our wishes, won’t continue to support him either. But what took Johnson’s ministers so long and why is this significant?
Can we give them the benefit of the doubt? Some have been mesmerized by the success of Johnson’s Brexit mandate, his 80-seat majority and his ‘magic charisma’. These Teflon features provided ballast against every dip in his poll ratings, every cover up, every lie and disastrous decision that has dogged his two-year leadership. The ritual of ‘defending your leader’ is a comfortable, habit-forming part of political life capable of blinding ministers to reality – when they described Johnson as ‘the man to lead the country’ some actually believed it, despite the evidence.
Deceivers, spinners and sleepers
But, ultimately, in Johnson’s case, these excuses are a sham. It’s one thing to turn a blind eye to the odd ministerial affair or expenses scandal. But what his supporters cannot say is:
“Well, yes, we knew even in 2019 that Johnson was a dishonest, incompetent, morally bankrupt narcissist and that Max Hastings, Conservative supporter and former Daily Telegraph editor, had already declared him unfit for office. And yes, it’s true that during Johnson’s time in office he has exercised all these faults – he tried unlawfully to prorogue parliament, trashed the UKs international reputation, kept bullies and sex pests in key government posts, oversaw unlawful PPE contracting, flouted his own rules during lockdown, lied to parliament on an almost daily basis and, last but worst, was responsible for thousands of avoidable Covid deaths – BUT – he got Brexit over the line. So, it’s OK”.
This defence is way over the required ‘loyalty threshold’ and is quite simply not ok. In fact, it’s obscene.
The unlawful prorogation of parliament in 2019 should have set alarm bells ringing and put Johnson’s cabinet on alert. But it didn’t. What followed was a relentless flow of misdeeds which piled up as fast as the bodies. Yet still nothing was done. Those who tried to flag up the truth were vilified by government-supporting media using tactics like re-branding complaints as ‘leftie woke Remainer moaning’. Even in Johnson’s final hours, the excruciatingly condescending Jacob Rees-Mogg was still reassuring us that:
“Macmillan lost his entire cabinet, by-elections mean nothing at all, and the illustrious PM is simply fulfilling his mandate”.
Allegedly, Pinchergate was the trigger for Johnson’s removal because it showed conclusively that he had failed to change either the culture of Westminster or himself. But this is nonsense. Ministers knew perfectly well that Johnson couldn’t change, so claiming that “he just might” was merely playing for time – a smokescreen for keeping him in place. Pinchergate wasn’t their ‘last straw’ but simply the point at which their cover was finally blown beyond repair.
Crucially, in this unfolding saga, it was neither the government nor initially the electorate who sought the truth. The truth, in fact, emerged only through the determination of a few investigative journalists, whistle blowers and independent organisations. It was Gina Miller who took Johnson to court over the prorogation, Pippa Crerar who unearthed partygate, the Good Law Project who investigated the PPE contract scandal, and Sir Simon McDonald who blew the whistle on Pinchergate.
Without the chance presence of people like this armed with the requisite skills, integrity and determination, Johnson’s ministers would have continued their blithe defence of the indefensible. The toxic propaganda spun by their supporting media wouldn’t have been challenged, and the electorate would have remained helpless to change anything.
Johnson’s eventual resignation was not because he had strayed too far from acceptable standards of leadership, but because the electorate was forcibly awakened to key truths leaked by a few individuals. These revelations finally triggered public condemnation of Johnson which, in turn, caused his MPs to realise that their constituency seats were threatened. And it is this that turned the tables – Johnsons’ ministers began to see the danger to themselves of keeping him.
A thought experiment
A system in which the correction of political mistakes hangs only on the vagaries of ministerial self-interest and the chance presence of a few honourable individuals who reveal the truth, should remind us how vulnerable our democracy is. Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario.
Imagine a possible world in which Johnson behaves exactly as he has done but with a few tweaks. In this world journalists like Crerar are absent (perhaps because the Mirror has already been banned). Imagine also that changes to other institutions that Johnson and his team have been trying to instigate happened earlier – Channel 4 news was cancelled back in 2019, the right-wing news media was pressured with even bigger donations to support the PM; at the very start of Johnson’s leadership, activists were sent out in droves to shore up support and funds were poured into continuing Cambridge Analytica style campaigns on social media to defend his actions.
This is far from being a fantastical scenario, partly because some of it has already happened – Johnson got into power in the first place because his campaign team successfully conned the electorate into giving him an 80-seat majority to get Brexit done. His colluding media subsequently protected him over his appalling pandemic management and Partygate. One of too many examples is the Daily Mail’s despicable 13-day assault on Starmer with Beergate headlines. If Johnson’s media didn’t succeed fully in their campaigns, this may simply be because his spin doctors had insufficient time to strengthen his populist programme enough to properly counteract the awkward facts that were also emerging.
Crying out for system change
The idea that democracy has kicked in because the public and their serving government of ‘good chaps’ have finally come to their senses about Johnson is false. Johnson’s resignation highlights how fragile our democracy is and how close to the edge it can veer. The US had a narrow escape when Biden managed to pluck US democracy from the jaws of Trump. Similarly, the outcome in the UK could have been very different.
UK democracy is currently delivered by an electorate hotly pursued and misled by news media barons, by party MPs who are prepared to jettison all standards in the cause of party survival, and by chance contingencies such as individuals and organisations being around with the right determination, integrity and luck. It’s no good saying that we can rely on the wisdom of the electorate if they don’t have access to the truth.
Nor can we rely on ministers if they only change course when their seats are at risk. If Johnson’s populist approach and media machine had done slightly better at continuing to con the electorate, his ratings could have survived and, in that case, so would the tolerance of his ministers. Their seats would have remained safe and so their defences of the indefensible would have continued unchecked.
This precarious situation is a reminder of how dangerous our current First Past The Post (FPTP) electoral system is in its ability to promote winners who, buttressed by their own party and media, become unassailable.
We need a new, modern electoral system of proportional representation that protects us against disasters like Johnson through the use of non-adversarial, multi-party governments in which parties work together and power is shared. This system should include a written constitution with ministerial accountability built in and should make education reform central. Until we have an education policy that includes critical thinking about politics and media, then we are no better than the media diet we are fed. We are what we read. This is how Johnson came to power in the first place. He was borne on the wave of an enormous con pushed and substantiated by the news media over the value of a particular anti-EU ideology.
The crucial lesson here is that the country, or enough of the country, fell for it. And if we can fall for this con then we can fall for others. The story of Johnson’s misrule and Johnson’s resignation is the story of why we urgently need constitutional change and a new kind of politics.
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