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A very British coup d’etat

downing street in london
Newspapers reporting the resignation of Boris Johnson lay on the floor at Downing Street in London, Britain, July 8, 2022. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls
There was nothing surprising about the decision to remove him; it was as ruthless as it was principled

British premier Boris Johnson was overthrown last Thursday July 7, 2022 in a very British coup. He is very bitter about being ousted from power and his resignation speech was full of bile against his party and the deserters in his government whom he branded the Westminster herd.

Unlike the US president an English prime minister is only as strong as his or her political party allows. People vote for MPs as members of political parties and although sometimes, as in the case of Johnson, leaders attract millions of voters personally, the constitutional position is that a prime minister must command majority support from MPs. If he or she cannot because their party has deserted them, they are finished and have to be replaced by someone who can.

Johnson called his party’s decision to remove him as leader of his party eccentric which was a bit rich given he had survived a no-confidence motion for lying to Parliament only a month before and was being removed for lying again. There was nothing surprising about the decision to remove him; it was as ruthless as it was principled but it was certainly not eccentric.

Adding insult to injury he accused the fifty ministers who deserted his government as moved by the Westminster herd instinct, which ignores their letters of resignation all of which cite his lack of honesty and integrity as the reason they could no longer serve under a government led by him. The fact that they were all motivated by a wish for honesty and integrity in public life had nothing to do with herd dynamic but with the free spirit of right-thinking men and women.

Near the end of his resignation speech, he ironically referred to the brilliant Darwinian system of electing a new leader to replace him. The system is neither brilliant nor Darwinian and he was just being pseudo intellectual. It is a simple system that provides for the nomination of candidates by eight MPs followed by a series of election rounds that eliminate candidates until two are left whose names then go forward for party members – about two hundred thousand middle-class middle-minded Conservatives – to choose the leader and prime minister from the two that filtered through.

At the end of his speech, Johnson said he was sad to be leaving the best job in the world but “them’s the breaks,” which I confess I had to look up. It means that’s the way it is, although I suspect he intended it to mean life’s a bitch sometimes.

His determination to remain prime minister a little while longer as caretaker, is usual but strange, given the reasons for his removal and the fact that most of his ministers abandoned ship but he has put together a functioning caretaker government and the Labour Party would be unwise to seek a no-confidence motion in Johnson’s caretaker administration as it will unite the Conservatives behind him.

Boris Johnson’s downfall was unsurprising but I remain puzzled why he lied by claiming he did not know that Chris Pincher was a predatory sex groper. On 29 June when Pincher groped two men at the Carlton club off Piccadilly after drinking himself legless at a Conservative Friends of Cyprus do, Boris Johnson was still at the Nato meeting in Madrid.

He is pictured engaging in lighthearted finger-wagging banter with President Erdogan – apparently in Turkish – while President Biden looks on amused at the antics of the two men.

So how did it happen that within a few hours after flying in from Madrid the PM found himself having to comment on groping by the man he appointed as deputy party manager? Pincher got the job despite his predilection for groping young men but was there a need to lie about what was known about him when he was appointed?

People lie for many reasons normally to hide some reprehensible conduct but this one is incomprehensible. As it was common knowledge that Pincher was a predatory groper, what difference would his groping at the Carlton Club make to Johnson that made his team deny the PM knew that Pincher had form for groping before appointing him? No difference at all. So why lie about it?

You would think that after lying to Parliament about parties in Downing Street, and after all the grovelling apologies he was forced to make, and after nearly losing a no-confidence motion as leader of the Conservative party, he would have been extremely careful not to be economical with the truth again over Pincher’s form for groping.

All the PM needed to do was tell the press office in Downing Street that Pincher was an incorrigible groper in need of counselling and that the PM regretted appointing him as a deputy chief whip. Had he done that, he would have killed the story in less than a week.

And yet the Downing Street press office put it about that the PM did not know of previous specific allegations of groping by Pincher.  They must have known that the truth would come out in the end, so why lie if you are going to be found out?

The truth did come out, first when a civil servant came forward and said Johnson was specifically informed about Pincher’s predatory groping three years ago and then when Dominic Cummings tweeted that Johnson had said jokingly of Pincher that he was “pincher by name pincher by nature,” which had the ring of truth about it.

Lying is not always wrong. I would have lied about the whereabouts of Ann Frank to save her from the Nazis. But lying to cover up wrongdoing is invariably wrong.

 

Alper Ali Riza is a queen’s counsel in the UK and a retired part-time judge

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