An incomplete guide to Boris Johnson’s downfall, or How to have fun with British politics

Let’s do a quick review of recent British political mayhem for the benefit both of folks who don’t live in Britain and of the ones who do but want a few extra moments to gloat: 

Boris Johnson has stepped down as prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. But Boris Johnson is also  still the prime minister and head of the Conservative Party.

Confused? I can’t think why. Stick around. It’ll all make something vaguely approaching sense before we’re done. 

Or else it won’t. I make no promises.

 

Irrelevant photo: Purple toadflax

What went wrong for Johnson?

You might as well ask what didn’t, but as so often happens he wasn’t brought down by the real scandals–the corruption, the lies, a Brexit cobbled together from high-end wine corks and journalistic fairy dust, not to mention heartless policies, destruction of the infrastructure, drunken parties during lockdown, lost elections, and the resignations of two ethics advisors–but by a sex scandal. And not even one he participated in. 

What happened was that he appointed someone named Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip, ignoring accusations that he was not a pincher but a groper.

Deputy chief whip? No, that’s not the sex scandal. It’s one of those weird British things that we can blame on history and that I won’t bother to explain.. 

When the accusations became public, Johnson said he hadn’t known about them.

Then it became public that he had been told. Formally. 

Then more allegations surfaced.

For the record, the people Pincher groped were male. I’m not sure if that had an impact in how the scandal’s played out. It would an interesting study. Or in the absence of evidence, an interesting essay. You could assert all kinds of things you couldn’t actually demonstrate.

Anyway, once all that happened, resignation letters from cabinet ministers and assorted less impressive governmental appointees began to flutter to the pavement outside 10 Downing Street like autumn leaves–first two, then more, than dozens, including, eventually, resignations from people who’d been appointed to replace people who’d resigned earlier.

At this point, any normal politician would have put their hands in the air and surrendered peacefully, but this is Boris Johnson we’re talking about, and it wasn’t until the resignation letters formed a layer dep enough to resemble Larry the Cat’s litter box that he finally, grudgingly, made a resignation speech that blamed herd mentality for running him out. 

Why did this particular scandal bring him down when other equally lurid ones haven’t? It’s a mystery. If enough autumn leaves fall onto a balance scale, eventually they’ll outweigh the political convenience on the other side. That’s the best I can do. 

But (see above; you’re supposed to be paying attention here), he’s not actually gone yet.

You know about Rasputin? He was a mystic, a faith healer, a self-proclaimed holy man, and a key hanger-on in the court of Russia’s last tsar–assuming, of course, that we don’t count Putin. He was assassinated by other court hangers-on who were desperate to get rid of him, and the story goes that he was poisoned, stabbed, beaten, shot three times, and finally wrapped in a rug and tossed into the River Neva. When he was fished out he was decisively dead, but he had water in his lungs, indicating that he was still alive when they threw him in.

The rug was ruined.

To be fair, it may not have happened exactly that way, but that’s okay, we’re not doing Russian history here, we’re just giving it a passing glance because I suspect it’s going to take something along the same lines to get Johnson out of Number 10, even now that he’s resigned.

And just for the record, I’m not advocating that particular set of actions, just contemplating overblown similarities. 

Johnson, they say, likes the perks of office. I can’t imagine he’ll give them up willingly. Already he’s had to move a postponed wedding reception from the grand mansion where prime ministers get to play to I don’t know where but wherever it is it’s less impressive.

Hasn’t the poor man suffered enough already?

 

What has Johnson learned from all those resignations?

The names of people he wants to take revenge on, although whether he’ll have the power to do them any damage is still up for grabs. Other than that, nothing that I can see. He new appointments aren’t much better than his old ones. One of the new crop (because he’s still the prime minister and is expected to have some semblance of a functioning government around him) has been accused by someone Pincher groped of asking if he’s gay, because if he is then surely what happened isn’t straightforward sexual harassment. 

In other words, she wanted to know if he asking for it.

Another appointee demonstrated the political judgment and sensitivity that she’ll bring to her new position by giving the finger to demonstrators outside Number 10. That may breach the ministerial code, which expects “high standards of behavior” and “propriety.” But that’s okay because  who’s going to enforce it? 

A third appointee doesn’t believe people are really having trouble affording food–presumably they’re using food banks because, hey, it’s free food–and compared taking the knee to giving a Nazi salute.

The big appointment, though, is to the chancellor’s job, since the last one resigned and is a front runner in the race to replace Johnson. The chancellor’s the guy who counts the money and makes financial policy. Or tries to, anyway. The new one is Nadhim Zahawi, and reports leaked out that civil servants sent out warnings about his finances. That’s not the same as saying he’s guilty of anything, only that disturbing allegations are buzzing around his head like flies around cowpies.

Wise politicians might want to be careful where they set their foot, although a wise politician is not what we’re dealing with.

An unnamed Conservative grandee accused Johnson of making unsuitable appointments so that he could leave a mess behind for his successor, but it’s also possible that no one suitable will take his phone calls. Or that he doesn’t know a bad appointment from a convenient one.

 

What didn’t happen

Under the current law, the prime minister can call an election at any time, and at one point Johnson hinted that he might just do that. Since his party has a huge whackin’ majority and polls indicate that right now it’s scraping caked-on crud off the linoleum, his party will be against this. As one article says, it would be “constitutionally very unusual.” And the queen could, if her advisers advised, refuse the request on the grounds that the existing parliament is viable.

From what I’ve read, that would be done via back channels, not in public. A message would go to Number 10 saying, basically, “Do not embarrass the queen by requesting this.” Only they’d capitalize queen.

 

So why’s he still the prime minister?

The best I can do by way of an answer is to say, Because that’s the way it works. Prime ministers aren’t elected directly. They’re (usually) the leader of the majority party, if there is one, or of the biggest, baddest party in the case of a coalition government. So if they step down, guess who gets to choose a new one.

You got it: the biggest, baddest party in the House of Commons. Which does it by following its own party rules instead of rules drawn up by anything as finicky as the government. So the process can take time, depending on the rules. 

Of course, since the rules are the party’s, the party can also change them at will–at least if its rules allow it to. If it wants to choose the next prime minister by seeing who can throw a rock farthest, I can’t see what would stop it.

Prime ministers can always resign effective immediately, in which case their party texts a temp agency and says, “Send us someone of prime ministerial quality, please. Must make public appearances and know how to wear a suit convincingly.” And then that person will run a caretaker government.  

But that’s not what’s happened. When Johnson finally bowed to something approaching reality and agreed to resign, he proposed hanging on until October, when the Conservatives hold their convention. 

To which the party said, “Not a chance,” but it didn’t roll him in that rug, so the date when he’s fully replaced depends on how quickly it can organize its replacement procedures: First the people who wanted to replace Johnson had to get support from at least 20 of their fellow Conservative MPs (that knocked a few out of the race), then those same MPs have (or had–I’m writing this a bit in advance of the fact, so I’m not sure if it’s happened yet) to vote until they’ve narrowed the list to two.  Then the party’s members vote. 

They’re rushing it as fast as they can and he should be gone by September 5. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. They might roll him in the wallpaper * and head for the river.

 

  • Yeah, that was another scandal. It’s breathtakingly ugly, it was very expensive (but then so was the rest of the furniture), and Johnson got caught arranging for a Conservative donor to pay for it. The next prime minister will either be haunted by it or bringing in a team of people with acetylene torches to get rid of it.