There’s no chance of him doing the honourable thing, but Boris must go

That there is a debate about whether Boris Johnson can continue in office – after being fined for breaking lockdown laws; attending events he variously denied existed, expressed anger about, or excused with implausible explanations; and having been shown to have misled Parliament – shows the full erosion of standards in our public life.

The lockdown laws were unprecedented and imposed by the PM himself. “Look her in the eyes,” warned a government poster showing a woman on a ventilator, “and tell her you never bend the rules.” Millions missed funerals, births and precious time with their families. “The rules were followed at all times,” was just one misleading claim Johnson made in Parliament. 

When Matt Hancock resigned as health secretary after breaking not laws but guidance, the Prime Minister took credit for his departure. Asked whether Hancock’s conduct had undermined public health messaging, Johnson said, “That’s right, and that’s why when I saw the story on Friday we had a new secretary of state for health on Saturday.”

There is no chance of the PM doing the honourable thing. He has spent a career sitting out crises and waiting for something else to turn up. In this case he hopes the war in Ukraine – in which it must be said he has performed strongly – will save him. And Conservative MPs, apart while the Commons is in recess, are uncertain about what to do. But yesterday one predicted: “He’s going to hang on and destroy the house like Samson tearing down the walls of the temple.”

If Johnson will not resign, the responsibility to decide his fate lies with the Cabinet and Conservative MPs. But for now, both are hesitant to act. The Johnson loyalists will go on defending him, while many MPs await the final list of revelations: the PM has been fined for the birthday gathering in the Cabinet Room, but the police are yet to decide about other events he attended, not least in the Downing Street flat. Other MPs know enough to want to move against him, but will wait to choose their moment to maximise their chances of success. Among them, many are pessimistic and even contemptuous about the weakness, as they see it, of their colleagues.

Many arguments are swirling around as loyalists seek to muddy the waters. Few stand up to scrutiny. We cannot change PM, they say, at a time of war. But Britain is not at war. Indeed, when we were, during the two world wars and the first Gulf War, we did change prime ministers. And anyway, under any other Tory leader, British policy in Ukraine would continue unchanged.

Neither is it true that the fine is comparable to a speeding ticket, or past occasions when ministers did not resign after being fined. The PM imposed these extraordinary laws, implored us to abide by them, broke them himself, and then lied about doing so. Neither is it right to argue that the fine does not confirm guilt: in paying the fine and not challenging it the PM is accepting the verdict of the police. 

There are all sorts of calculations for Tory MPs, about the forthcoming local elections, who might replace Johnson, and what agenda should follow. But sooner rather than later those MPs will have to confront the only calculation that matters. Is it right for the country to be led by a man who has broken laws he imposed on others and then lied about doing so? To that question, in all honesty, there can be only one answer.

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