Picture Credit: Richard Pohle - WPA Pool/Getty Images)

The end of the story

Boris may escape punishment, but he will still have to answer to the public

Artillery Row

Short of cash as the Labour Party is, they probably don’t want suggestions for things to spend money on. But if they can find any pennies, they’d be well advised to donate all of them to Boris Johnson’s legal defence fund.

Johnson is turning into the Tory version of Jeremy Corbyn

We are told that the prime minister is going to use his party questionnaire from the Met to argue that Downing Street is such a unique building that the Covid rules didn’t apply there. When in the building, he was at once at home and at work, whichever was closer to being legal. If the cops don’t buy that, I think I speak for every political journalist in saying that we would very much like the prime minister to try to find a way to challenge his fines in the courts. Please do it. Please.

But let us imagine that the police do accept that the rules didn’t apply to the prime minister. What then? Do government strategists imagine that this news would be greeted by cheering crowds, the prime minister carried on shoulders through the streets by a nation grateful that their man has got away with it once again?

However bad Tory MPs imagine things will be it the prime minister is fined for repeatedly and flagrantly breaking the lockdown rules that, let us not forget, he personally introduced and repeatedly explained in daily press conferences, it will be worse if he gets off. It will be bad for the police and very bad indeed for the Conservatives.

Everybody now knows that there were parties in Downing Street, and the prime minister has confirmed that he attended them. A significant number of people are quite angry about this, and many more have concluded, correctly, that it tells them something important about the kind of man Johnson is. If he gets off, that view won’t change. Anyone who wants a worked example of that need only look at Dominic Cummings’s jaunt to Barnard Castle. No one responded to the news that he had escaped punishment by concluding that they must have misjudged the situation.

The prime minister’s fingers will have to be prised one by one from the doorframe of Number 10

Johnson is turning into the Tory version of Jeremy Corbyn. It’s sometimes suggested that Labour MPs did nothing to get rid of Corbyn, but that’s not true. They passed an overwhelming vote of no confidence in him within a year of his becoming leader. But it turned out no one had thought to include a clause in the party rules explaining that this meant he had to go. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that this would be necessary.

Johnson, meanwhile, proposes that even if found to have broken the law, he should stay in post. No one had thought to write a rule saying otherwise, because no one thought it necessary.

Corbyn took the view that his mandate came from the Labour membership, and indeed they endorsed his decision not to resign. Johnson seems to feel his comes from the electorate, though it is unclear what voters would have to do to signal that they no longer supported him. Tory MPs shouldn’t count on bad local election results doing the trick.

The prime minister’s fingers will have to be prised one by one from the doorframe of Number 10. The reluctance of MPs to begin this process this is understandable. But what are the benefits of keeping Johnson? It is not, after all, as though he’s much good at his job.

Most prime ministers find their toughest moments come from impossible problem; things like Brexit or the global financial collapse. Johnson, in contrast, is being undone by ethical questions a six-year-old could answer. Should he spend a six-figure sum he doesn’t have renovating his flat? Should he borrow a slogan from internet fascists? Should he, after making parties illegal, have parties? This stuff is not tricky.

It is hardly a surprise that he is finding the harder stuff, well, harder. Although the prime minister professed astonishment at being told that there were quite a lot of rich people in the south east and quite a few poorer people in the north, this has actually been known for a while. With no guiding idea beyond “something must be done” and no cash with which to do it, who is really shocked to learn that his levelling up policies don’t impress?

Labour is, very softly, beginning to engage with its Corbyn issue. The party twice offered the country a leader manifestly unsuitable to be prime minister. This had real consequences, not least of which was Boris Johnson’s government. Tories are right that Keir Starmer has to account for his part in that. But having begun with advice for Labour, let’s finish with some for the Conservatives: this might not be the best moment to argue that having supported an obviously unfit leader should bar people from high office.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover