A little under four months ago, when this column went on hiatus, and I was on sabbatical, Boris Johnson’s demise was universally considered to be imminent. So imminent, in fact, that I was anxiously minded to delay the leave so that I would not miss the Moment. So imminent that my own predictions at the time that Partygate would probably amount to little in the short or medium term seemed to wobble under what looked like an irresistible weight. The pundits were certain, the Johnson supporting press was running out of justification road, and voters were too mad to stand for it.
A lot has happened since then: resignations, police fines, a damning Sue Gray report, byelection losses, a confidence vote. But in terms of the big thing, the only big thing that really matters, nothing has happened. Johnson’s resignation or ejection – and the associated restoration of some semblance of standards and values in British politics – is still, well, imminent.
It may not feel that way, but I am here, a Sleeper of Ephesus, to tell you that after a long slumber I have found things to be more or less as they were earlier in the year. But with an extra dash of jeopardy.
For while we wait, taking some comfort in the fact that Johnson is a dead man walking, two things are happening. In the first, political norms are being sanded away. The expectation of consequences for dishonesty and malpractice in high office begins to dissolve. The standards to which we hold our politicians begin to matter less than the standards by which politicians hold themselves. New norms start to replace the old ones, and then become very hard to reverse overnight.
Look at No 10’s indulgence of the former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher, who was suspended from the party only after a complaint had been made to parliament’s behaviour watchdog, and against whom new allegations of sexual misconduct still continue to emerge. Pincher, perhaps taking a cue from a prime minister slow to mete out discipline, or adhere to it himself, refuses to resign as an MP.
That’s the thing with norms: they coalesce over time. They are not objective standards of behaviour; they are shaped by what the government and the people become accustomed to over a period – in this case a period in which lying, corruption and cronyism go unpunished. To restore those standards, it will take more than a new leader installed by “good” Tories, whatever that means. And it will take more than a Labour party passively waiting in the wings for the Johnson show to come to a (very slow) stop. The earth shifts, tilts and rolls with every passing day in a direction where the only thing standing between successful mendacity in office and accountability is not the electorate or other politicians: it is the extent to which each miscreant has the gumption and shamelessness to go for it, and brazen out objection.
When there is such a lag between crime and punishment – seven months and counting now since the first reports of Partygate – you can’t really fully come back from it. The January 6 committee hearings and the Roe v Wade judgment are a good example of the poisonous half-life. Donald Trump lost, but he left a door wide open for his allies and impersonators to sow mischief and run for office, mining a grievance culture that resulted in actual insurrection, for which no politicians, only citizens, have been punished. A country rent asunder by one man, which no god can bring back together.
This is the second thing that happens as we wait for the demise of
Johnson and his particular version of the Tory party – laws are passed and events occur that have a potent effect long after their champions have moved on. Johnson’s dysfunctional government seems the stuff of farce, but it retains the executive ability to make decisions that have real effects on real people. Those decisions become calamitous as they pitch crueller and more reckless policies in a crude, patronising attempt to throw red meat to the so-called red wall, reprising those heady first days of love before all the levelling-up promises turned to nothing. And so a migrant offshoring plan is cobbled together, like a bunch of apology roses couriered to a betrayed lover who, in truth, prefers lilies.
It’s tempting to see this as drama, but the script has terrible tangible effects. It sees desperate humans dragged from desperate detention on to planes as an act of public policy. It sees a trade war loom into view over reckless government plans to override the Northern Ireland protocol; risks that shape the future of the country – markers of this, the most dangerous of times.
Discussing this stasis, this awful complacency, with a friend, he said: “It’s as if we are all on a plane being reassured that we are going to land soon once conditions improve, without realising that we are also running out of fuel.” As per Hemingway’s description of insolvency, British politics goes bankrupt in two ways: gradually, then all at once.
Today, as was the case four months ago and indeed seven months ago, I am reassured, sometimes with kindly patronage, that it’s only a matter of time before Johnson goes and the reset begins. But in a matter of time – or, as Keynes had it, in the long run – we are all dead. Change does takes time, of course it does, but as James Baldwin pointed out on being told by white people to be patient with the slow pace of change in US race relations: “It’s taken my father’s time. My mother’s time. My uncle’s time. My brothers’ and sisters’ time. How much time do you need, for your progress?”