IIn a succession of scandals, Boris Johnson has opened the floodgates to wrongdoing and impunity for politicians like never before – aided by his anarchic friends in the British press and an ossified constitution
They were born into lawlessness, and without law they won and reigned.
The Vote Leave administration’s coup against the rule of law began when it breached election law overspending limits in the 2016 EU referendum. Although it took three full years for Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings to enter Downing Street, one of their first actions was to prorogue Parliament, a move later ruled illegal by the Supreme Court.
Due to their deliberate failure to strengthen democratic safeguards, allowing dark ads to proliferate on social media, we don’t know if any other laws were broken in the 2019 general election. But we do know that, a few months later Later, when the coronavirus pandemic started, the first instinct of Boris Johnson’s administration was to break more laws.
First there was ‘Wallpapergate’. Lord Geidt, the independent adviser on ministerial interests (to whom Chancellor Rishi Sunak has just referred for questions concerning his and his wife’s financial interests), has chastised Johnson for acting ‘recklessly’ during the lavish renovation of his Downing Street apartment. The Conservative Party has been fined £18,000 by the Electoral Commission for failing to report donations correctly. But getting away with this infraction didn’t stop the occupiers’ penchant for breaking the rules – it just encouraged them.
The cronyism contract scandal followed. The High Court ruled last February that Matt Hancock, when he was Health and Social Care Secretary, acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of multibillion-pound COVID government contracts within the 30-day deadline. required by law. Judge Chamberlain ruled that the failures of Hancock and his department breached the ‘vital public service’ of transparency over how ‘vast amounts’ of taxpayers’ money was spent. In January this year, the High Court ruled that the government’s ‘VIP lane’ – which awarded contracts for personal protective equipment to companies with links to ministers, MPs and civil servants – was also illegal.
But that was just the beginning. Although the Byline Intelligence Team calculated that the total value of all contracts awarded during the crisis was £54.2bn at the time – more than the GDP of 140 countries and territories – cronyism was not Hancock’s downfall . He broke COVID restrictions when he was filmed kissing his aide Gina Colangelo. In a rare resignation, the married minister admitted the game was over – a move hailed by Johnson’s spokesman “as the right decision”.
Meanwhile, the rest of Johnson’s government was enjoying a riot of illegal parties on government premises.
When these first came to public attention late last year, and as the then Prime Minister’s spokeswoman, Allegra Stratton, was filmed joking about the lockdown parties, Johnson pleaded ignorance. “I understand and share the anger across the country to see Number 10 staff appear to be shedding light on the lockdown measures,” he told parliament. “I can understand how infuriating it must be to think that the people who made the rules didn’t follow the rules because I was so furious to see that clip.”
We must resist this exercisein hypernormalization
His language was revealing. It was “infuriating” to the public, but he was personally furious about the clip. No wonder – the cat was out of the bag. The holiday revelations continued. Photographs emerged of a ‘bring your own booze’ event, quizzes with garlands and prosecco – while the rest of the country went into isolation and lockdown, leaving loved ones alone as they died and grieved.
Still, Johnson insisted no laws were broken. It was part of his usual, almost reflexive deceptions – an escalation of the “hypernormalisation” of untruths seen in Johnson’s early days in Downing Street, when fast and loose was played with facts about Brexit and the Coronavirus: or, more recently , on Keir Starmer’s role in the pursuit of Jimmy Savile, on post-pandemic jobs, on the sanctions against Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, on the drop in crime.
Lies have been blatantly repeated in parliament without consequence, and there is a sense of impunity in the highest offices of state.
However, with the lockdown breaking the lawlessness, there is no way out.
It is only thanks to the continued legal pressure brought to bear on the Metropolitan Police by the Good Law Project and others that we now know that Boris Johnson and his wife, as well as the Chancellor – along with around 50 others – were fined for breaking the very rules. that they put together, and spent a year insisting they didn’t break.
Thus, the Prime Minister has, at a criminal burden of proof, lied to the public. He lied to Parliament and to officials. And, while it may help his short-term survival, he has co-opted so many senior ministers into his anarchy that we now have an entire administration compromised in a disturbing new kind of collective Cabinet irresponsibility.
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The great empowerment
Allowing the Johnson government at every stage – so far – has been the crisis for British journalism.
While under David Cameron and Theresa May the country’s influential tabloids were right-wing and encouraged those in power, under Johnson a fusion occurred between the media and the political classes. This process began when, during the phone hacking and police corruption scandals, the press was in the dock in the Leveson inquiry, following dozens of convictions and the threat of tougher regulation.
Johnson, a Telegraph columnist himself, fought for the defense of his friends in the press and his wealthy owners. Grants and favors flowed both ways, as did the defense of lawlessness on both sides. The result has been a government run by a journalist, fed by journalists – and vice versa – with the press picking and choosing when it wants to hold the government to account and when it doesn’t.
While the work of shimmer and ITV News In revealing the scale of the lockdown-breaking parties is to be rightly praised, it’s also worth noting that “Partygate” isn’t the first Johnson scandal that needed to be exposed, nor necessarily the most egregious.
Nonetheless, the fact that Partygate stories have dominated the pages of established media shows that it still has the collective power to act as a Fourth Estate and hold politicians to account – whenever it wants. This, in turn, has brought to light all the times it was desperately needed but sorely missed – from the aftermath of Britain’s hard Brexit to the government’s reckless approach to the coronavirus crisis, to Russian interference and the dangers of Vladimir Putin.
But the media (if they wish) can only expose. It is our political system that must have the mechanisms to hold politicians to account when they refuse to play by the rules. Checks and balances that exercise real power over elected politicians can be effective tools if built into the structures of our democracy.
With the Partygate scandal, Boris Johnson’s government has gone from breaking standards to breaking laws – and the very idea of Britain’s political system is now at stake.
The Death oflast good guy
He has, once and for all, laid bare the vulnerabilities and dangers of a system devoid of a written and codified constitution, dependent on checks and balances in the form of custom, precedent and honorable convention. The one who is not equipped to face the unprecedented, or to evolve with these dark times.
When Labor MP Dawn Butler was asked to leave the House of Commons last July after calling the Prime Minister a liar, the incident exposed the absurdity of a system that allows top officials to lie with impunity , while penalizing those who expose the lies – all in the name of archaic procedures supposedly still in place in honor facilitation.
Surely now is the time for all who care about democracy to recognize that fundamental change – including in the functioning of the head of state, checks on the executive and a presidential-style prime minister and our constitution – should be considered. But nascent inequalities, fueling a dangerous disengagement from democracy among the public, continue.
What happens to our “good guy” democracy when bad actors come to power? 170,000 people have died from coronavirus in the UK – each of them deserving of accounts. As it stands, there is only one ballot box at the end of the line and the conscience of Tory MPs, worried about their careers, could give them that.
If Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak remain in power despite compelling evidence that they broke the law, the values of which the Conservative Party claimed to be most proud – the rule of law, civil liberties and good old British fairness – will not will mean nothing. With our ‘mother of parliaments’, ‘world-class’ institutions and a supposedly unparalleled justice system, Britain has long shrouded itself in myths about itself – as a different reality now speaks of herself.
If the Chancellor and Prime Minister survive, it will surely be a coup against our country and the British public: our lawmakers supported by lawbreakers.
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Our main investigations include: empire and the culture wars, Brexit, crony contracts, Russian interference, the coronavirus pandemic, democracy in danger and the crisis in British journalism. We are also introducing new color voices to Our Lives Matter.