It’s generally bad form to quote another journalist, but Stewart Lee’s day job is stand-up comedian, so we can make an exception just this once. Writing in The Observer on Sunday, Lee offered a summary of Britain’s Conservative government as its twelve-year reign stumbles towards its close.
The Conservative politicians making headlines last week, he wrote, were “a child molester, a serial adulterer and compulsive liar, a handsome but morally bankrupt financial whiz-kid, and a bully who sends immigrants to Rwanda.”
“That’s less like a government and more like a special team of convicted criminals given their freedom in exchange for accepting an impossible mission behind enemy lines in a 1970s Italian-funded war film. Operation Dynamite Bastards!!!!”
Imran Ahmad Khan, a Conservative member of parliament, resigned after being convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, but the real story was that another Tory MP, Crispin Blunt, a former Justice Minister, condemned his conviction as “an international scandal, with dreadful wider implications for millions of LGBT+ Muslims around the world.”
The ‘serial adulterer and compulsive liar’ was of course Prime Minister Al ‘Boris’ Johnson, still refusing to deny that he has no more children than the seven he admits to by various mothers. But it was the ‘compulsive liar’ part of the indictment that was getting more attention last week.
That really was a legal matter. For more than a year the Conservative government has been haunted by ‘Partygate’, an ongoing scandal about numerous drinks parties at the prime minister’s combination home and office, No. 10 Downing Street, even when the entire country was in Covid lock-down.
The rules at the time, publicised by Johnson himself on national television, said that no more than two people from different households could be together indoors except for work reasons. However, the parties at Number Ten were almost weekly: birthday parties, leaving parties, Thank-God-It’s-Friday parties. There was even a drinks fridge in the office.
Revelations about these parties trickled out one by one starting about a year ago, each denied by Johnson both to the public and in parliament (where deliberately lying is a resigning offence). Eventually the police got involved, as these were criminal offences, and the first fines were handed out to Johnson and other senior Conservatives last week.
The police are dealing with the offences one at a time, drip-feed, and Johnson is due for up to five more fines. He is also going to have to brazen it out for lying to parliament, and while the Conservative majority there will save him for the moment, his party has irretrievably lost faith him
The ‘handsome but morally bankrupt financial whiz-kid’ is Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), who was universally seen as Johnson’s chief rival and possible replacement – until he fell from grace a couple of weeks ago. He too has been fined for the parties, but his bigger problem is his personal finances.
First it came out that Sunak’s wife, an Indian heiress, has been exploiting a tax loophole to avoid paying British taxes on her dividend income of $15 million a year. All she had to do was declare that she didn’t intend to stay in the UK permanently – which may be true, because it then came out that Rishi and she had both kept their US-issued green cards.
That ends Sunak’s prime ministerial ambitions – and then there’s the ‘bully who sends immigrants to Rwanda’, Home Secretary Priti Patel. She announced the plan last week while handing a £120 million down payment to Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame for taking asylum seekers off Britain’s hands.
It’s probably illegal, and Patel doubtless realises that it won’t ever really happen. She’s just throwing some red meat to the racist and anti-immigrant voters who played a big part in putting Johnson & Co. into power in the last election. But she hasn’t solved the bigger problem, which is what to do about Johnson. Nobody has.
Johnson’s popularity in the party and in the country has collapsed, and even his recent sub-Churchillian posturing in Ukraine has done nothing to restore it. But following the decline of Rishi Sunak’s star, the Conservatives have no other candidate who will tickle the electorate’s fancy. Moreover, Johnson certainly won’t go without a fight.
The likeliest outcome is stalemate: an unpopular government heading into a cost-of-living crisis with no visible strategy and two years to go until the next election. They had no policy beyond ‘Brexit’, which no longer inspires even its former enthusiasts, and their enemies’ fondest wish is that Johnson stays in office until that election rolls around at last.
He probably will.
Gwynne Dyer’s new book is The Shortest History of War