No amount of reputation laundering will clean up the Conservative Party after Boris Johnson | Nesrine Malik
In the most successful revolutions, there comes a time when the dictator is ousted from office by a powerful figure in his entourage. During the Arab Spring, the formula became familiar: a military commander claimed he could no longer sit idly by while a despotic president brutalized protesters. They would speak up, giving up their careers for the good of the nation, and deliver a pious speech about their love of country. Yet, as the bitter aftermath of the Arab Spring demonstrates, the person who deposes the dictator often helped create them. They are not a saviour. In fact, they could be the next dictator.
The Conservative Party is now home to a whole cast of these protagonists, all of whom claim to have done the right thing for the good of the nation. Over the next few weeks Tory ministers will do and say everything they can to clear their name and blame the catastrophic failure of this government on Boris Johnson alone. Their resignation letters and tweets all followed the same treacherous pattern — a pattern sickening in its dishonesty, shameful in its resort to the rhetoric of patriotism, insulting in its pursuit of apologies, transparent in its identical format.
“I can no longer, in good conscience, continue to serve,” wrote Sajid Javid, despite several scandals. Meanwhile, Rishi Sunak believes the standards of “proper”, “competent” and “serious” government must be upheld, as if he hadn’t realized before that Johnson was none of those things. Nothing screams “principled” more than backing Johnson through numerous scandals, only to jump ship just when it becomes clear he is sinking.
As Tory MPs jostle in front of the crowds to sell themselves as future Tory leaders, we are expected to believe that Johnson came to power without any help or ability, or that leaders are falling from the sky, as meteorites, then squat in office until a large enough crowd has gathered to take them out. Most implausible of all, we are supposed to believe that those who enthusiastically defended Johnson when he lied, cheated and recklessly mismanaged a deadly pandemic must now trust us to lead us next.
Another paper-shredding exercise is taking place in the parts of the media that either couldn’t stomach the Labor alternative at the time of the 2019 election, thus giving Johnson a prime minister’s job by default, or were intoxicated by him in a climate of Brexit bravado and merry Corbyn-bashing. For both camps, Johnson’s worst traits (that everyone knew) were always preferable to any political alternative that remotely threatened the status quo on immigration, foreign policy, or friendly government-media complicity.
Johnson’s rise promised to spur a media outlet that thrived on him and his party on fear of immigrants, the EU and other villains such as children who needed free school meals. The 2019 election campaign had brought with it a “slightly fuzzy sense of excitement”, Matthew Parris wrote in The Times in 2020. It wasn’t about what Johnson would actually do, he said, but about his “zing”, his “whiz-bang, sparkle, fizz, gusto, passion – and fun”. Only three years earlier, Parris had written of the same Johnson, “Incompetence is no fun… A reckless disregard for the truth is no fun.” Like those principled Tory MPs, the right-wing press continued to make excuses for Johnson, a man whose nature they knew all along, until they calculated he was no longer a “greased piglet “but rather a handicap.
Again the clock resets and we’re supposed to move on and believe that those who have helped Johnson along the way feel as angry, disappointed and betrayed as the British people. And you know what? Many will believe it. When unpopular leaders are removed from office, two things happen. First, in the power vacuum created by their departure, the kingmakers and predictors of kings, eager to get in on the action, begin betting on who will rule the country next. And so a frenzied horse commentary begins. The language of electoral race analysis is of little use for moral judgments that would expose the character of leadership contestants.
And so the news beat obliterates the ghouls now showing up to replace Johnson, declaring them “skillful”, “impressive”, “good for briefings”, “interesting politicians”, “one to watch”, “serious” operators. Already we see candidate profiles, endless polls pitting future Tory leaders against Keir Starmer, and “who’s up and who’s down” comments. As they are questioned, these candidates are already called upon to give their opinion on everything from tax to trans issues, but few will wonder why, just a few weeks ago, they defended Johnson against the lockdown party allegations (Grant Shapps), backed Johnson in last month’s vote of no confidence (Liz Truss), or backed Johnson when calls for his resignation began in January this year (Javid).
Everyone who walks away from the scene of the crime also benefits from the momentum that drives the collective desire for a fresh start. After the cascade of Johnson scandals and two years of Covid gloom, who wants to believe that the disease of our politics and the fragility of our economy cannot be purged by getting rid of the one individual who came to personify it? By removing Johnson from office, the right thing seems to have been done. No one wants to listen to the person claiming that the problem is not with one individual, or that there was no honor in Johnson’s firing.
The profound changes we aspire to in British politics will not be achieved by replacing one Tory leader with another. As long as this shock collar is triggered by the media and the right-wing political establishment whenever structural reforms are proposed, little will change. To quote Javid in his address to the Communes“There are only so many times you can turn this machine on and off before you realize something is fundamentally wrong.”
And so, as in all crises, when we are most likely to believe good news, we are sold the lie that the trouble is over and the culprits have been isolated. But it is not finished. The only hope we have is to plant our feet and stand firm. There is not a single excuse, nor a single forgivable reason, to trust those who knew who Johnson was all along and inflicted him on the nation anyway.
Guardian Newsroom: The end of the Johnson era
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Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist