Lawmaker can’t be lawbreaker so Boris Johnson must resign

Johnson won’t quit or be forced out but arguments over timing and loss of a clear electoral asset can’t disguise the truth

Daniel Finkelstein

The comedian Eddie Izzard used to have a joke in one of his shows about pears. How they were only ripe for half an hour, and you’d always miss it. While you were out they would go from rock hard to mush, being at all times inedible.

This joke returned to me over the last couple of weeks hearing Conservative MPs talk about whether the prime minister should resign over breaking the laws that he set. For a long period the argument was that the time wasn’t yet ripe. We needed to see what Sue Gray had to say, and we would just have to be patient and wait.

Then, while we were all looking elsewhere, the position changed. It was no longer too soon to move against the prime minister, it was too late. He was a war leader and we would be giving succour to Vladimir Putin and anyway this was all months ago. Somehow the moment when it was neither too early nor too late had never arrived.

Here’s the fact and we’d better face it. Boris Johnson will not go of his own volition over the parties and it is unlikely that MPs will force him to do so. It is possible if, say, the eventual Sue Gray report comes after terrible local election results. But for now at least it isn’t likely.

Anybody who thinks he will simply decide that his position is untenable has not been following his career or understood his personality. His view is that great political careers require a thick skin, that they go up and down, that political moods change, that you barrel on and provided you don’t look behind you, people will be following.

And all the arguments against him being deposed by Tory MPs remain. There is a market failure in political coups. While the benefits accrue to everyone, the risk is borne only by one or two people. Everyone pauses, waiting for everyone else to move. And there are always good arguments for doing nothing.

There is a suggestion by some commentators that were Rishi Sunak to resign, as everything except the crudest political calculation suggests he should do, this scenario would change. That he would then be bearing the risk and everyone would pile in behind him. I don’t believe this is the case.

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If the chancellor decided to resign it would certainly put a lot of public pressure on the prime minister. However, I suspect the reaction of the majority of Conservative MPs would be irritation. They would argue publicly there is a difference between a secretary of state and a prime minister with an election mandate. Privately (although in ways that will find their way into the media) they would suggest that Sunak lacked robustness and that his resignation was more vanity than principle.

So I don’t think the prime minister is likely to resign and I don’t think he will be forced to do so. But should he? My view remains that he should. Ministers set the law and breaking the law is a resigning matter.

The strongest argument against him resigning is that it would be disproportionate. But it is not an argument I can accept. There are three serious failings of which the prime minister has now been found guilty. He has broken the law himself. He has presided over widespread lawbreaking among his staff. And he has not told parliament the truth about this lawbreaking. To argue that all this is unimportant is completely unacceptable.

Among other things, it involves suggesting that breaking the Covid laws was something that did not matter very much. But that is quite wrong. They were put in place because breaking them could result in someone dying. Which the prime minister knows because he caught Covid and almost did die.

I would completely understand if the chancellor felt a sense of injustice at being called to a meeting by someone else and arrived to find others there socialising, but the rules, which his government set, were the same for everyone. And in any case, the prime minister does not have this defence for the management of his staff or his attendance at other events. Or for what he told the Commons.

Parliament relies on ministers diligently taking trouble to inform themselves of the facts and then telling the truth to parliament about it. At least one part of that did not happen. If parliament decides that this does not matter, a line will have been crossed.

Along with the argument about disproportionality is the one about timing: the suggestion that it would be wrong to remove Johnson during the war in Ukraine. I do not accept this, either.

I believe Johnson’s conduct of policy towards Ukraine has been commendable. There have been lacunae — the policy on refugees in particular — but overall he has been clear-thinking and brave and has shown leadership internationally. However, his policy is that of his government and of parliament. Not just of him. He is prime minister, not president.

Nor is this just some abstract, constitutional point. I do not believe that Britain changing its prime minister would make the slightest difference to the conduct or outcome of the war in Ukraine. I am confident that an alternative Conservative prime minister would carry on the policy of the government with exactly the same panache and effectiveness. In any case, the struggle with Russia is likely to go on for years. Suggesting we cannot change prime minister while it proceeds will prove impractical.

And the argument that Johnson’s downfall would give succour to Putin? There seem to me two objections to this. The first is that it grants the Russian dictator a say in British politics which I am unwilling to accord him. I don’t care what does or doesn’t please him. The other objection is that our battle with Putin is precisely over the rule of law and the defence of democracy. It would be an odd thing if we failed to adhere to that at home in order to advance the case for it abroad.

Finally there is the assertion that Johnson is an election winner with a magic that others lack. This is not the basis upon which MPs should determine whether a prime minister should remain in office having broken the law he set himself. It is, of course, something of interest mainly to Conservatives and a purely political calculation. But also, I suspect, not a correct one.

It is much too early to predict the result of the next election. It is true that Johnson has found ways of reaching voters that have eluded other Tories. And it is true also that the viable alternatives both inside and outside the party don’t brim with electoral appeal. But if the Conservative Party thinks that Johnson’s appeal to voters is undimmed by what has happened, or that it will quickly fade from public memory, I think it is in for a shock.