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Artillery Row

Boris must go – but that won’t solve the problem

The Tories are sailing into a storm

The ideal political scandal to be embroiled in is one that no one understands. The journalist setting it out for the busy reader knows they’re losing as they begin the second paragraph of explanation. This is why, had Owen Paterson been willing to take his punishment for lobbying, his voters might not have minded that much. It may be why it often feels like the politician’s cover-up is what gets them: everyone understands lying, even if they don’t understand what was being lied about.

Meanwhile the worst political sins to commit are those that directly affect voters. When Tony Blair was accused of selling peerages, few people felt that they finally understood why they weren’t in the House of Lords. 

This is difficult weather for any government to sail into

Boris Johnson’s problem is that he’s accused of doing something that everyone understands, and that we all feel we have a stake in. It’s so simple that you can explain it in three words: they broke lockdown. And no one else has to be reminded of the frustrations and sacrifices that period involved for the rest of us.

This is why the briefings currently emerging from Number 10 are so pitiful. Sue Gray will provide wriggle room, we’re told. She won’t conclude there is evidence of criminality, they say, as if that were the only bar that a prime minister has to clear. 

Everyone knows what Johnson did. Unless Gray concludes that terrorists have been holding one of his children hostage and forcing him to host parties and lie about it, nothing she can say will “clear” him in the public mind. 

We can assume that, if there were a better defence available to Johnson than “I didn’t realise I was at a party”, he would have deployed it. Not even he could make that sound convincing, and it’s certain that no one else in the Cabinet will be able to. 

Nobody much liked lockdown, but we were told that it was necessary to save lives. The anger is not that Johnson imposed lockdown, but that he and his team then broke it, again and again. This stuff is not complicated: the people who make the rules should follow the rules.  

So Johnson will have to go. But while removing him will mean the government no longer has its moral compass set by a man whose general goal is his immediate gratification, it’s worth asking how much a new leader can change. 

The big problems facing the government are structural. There is an NHS backlog, the costs of mitigating Covid were huge, and the rest of the public realm is looking pretty shoddy after a decade of spending restraint. The Tories promised to make things better without raising taxes, which was always going to be tricky. As things stand, they will end up breaking both parts of that. To make matters worse, a wave of inflation is about to hit us, starting with much bigger energy bills. 

This is difficult weather for any government to sail into, but it is made trickier by the Conservative party’s big economic choice to seek a Brexit deal that makes it harder for businesses to export to our largest market, in the hope of making it easier for them to export to smaller markets. Perhaps there will be benefits from this choice down the road, but there are costs right now. 

Changing leader will change none of these things. Nor is it likely to change the approach to Covid. Although Johnson is now being praised for not having imposed a Christmas lockdown, it’s clear he seriously considered it, and that Sajid Javid agreed. These are two of the Conservative Party’s strongest instinctive libertarians, and both know their own party’s views. So whatever it is that the scientists said to them in late December, it was persuasive. It’s very hard to imagine Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss having taken it less seriously. Anonymously briefing the press about how much you dislike something is far easier than taking the decision on it, when getting it wrong would cost lives. 

The Tories should dump Johnson. He demeans them and us. But that is only the beginning of their difficulties.

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