The UK Held Corruption Accountable. Why Can’t We?

The UK Held Corruption Accountable. Why Can’t We?

The UK Held Corruption Accountable. Why Can’t We?

Despite an extraordinary effort by Boris Johnson to cling to power, the parliamentary system and the principles of collective responsibility within the cabinet have held firm.


For weeks now, the January 6 hearings have laid bare just how dangerous and violent were Donald Trump’s efforts to cling to power after he lost the 2020 election. Yet, despite this evidence, the majority of GOP Congress members, and the majority of Republican voters, remain fiercely loyal to Trump, entirely wrapped up in their alternate reality. In the United Kingdom, by contrast, despite an extraordinary effort by Boris Johnson to cling to power, the parliamentary system and the principles of collective responsibility within the cabinet have held firm.

In June, after months of scandals, Conservative MPs triggered a no-confidence vote in his leadership. Johnson survived, but with only 59 percent of his MPs supporting him; it was a devastating blow for a leader who had long viewed himself as electorally invulnerable. In the weeks following, with public support for Johnson and for the Tories crumbling, with inflation, as measured by the consumer price index, heading toward 10 percent, with the country’s economic growth predicted to be stagnant in 2023, and the British currency plunging, the Conservative Party badly lost two by-elections, one of them in a district the party had held for more than a hundred years.

And the scandals kept rolling in.

From Tuesday to Thursday of this week, as yet another wave of allegations swamped Johnson’s government—this time a sordid situation involving a senior political figure, with the unfortunate name of “Pincher,” who was accused of groping a number of male colleagues and acquaintances, and yet was promoted by Johnson—dozens of government ministers resigned in a coordinated effort to bring down the prime minister. Despite this, for nearly 40 hours, a petulant, combative Johnson simply refused to be dislodged from power.

The resignations began Tuesday night, when Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid very publicly quit the government. They accelerated Wednesday, both before and after a brutal Prime Minister’s Question Time, in which Johnson was repeatedly barracked not just from the opposition but also from those sitting on the Tory party benches. Javid gave an extraordinary speech in Parliament about the importance of honor and integrity, and the impossibility of continuing to defend the acts of Johnson’s government.

On Wednesday night, a number of Johnson’s most senior cabinet members trouped to 10 Downing Street to tell him he had to step down. He refused. The Guardian ran a banner headline in its print edition: “Desperate, deluded PM clings to power.” Early Thursday morning, newly appointed Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi said that the PM needed to “do the right thing and go now.” Meanwhile, Johnson’s defense secretary, Ben Wallace, urged his parliamentary colleagues in the Conservative Party to vote Johnson out of office. The newly appointed education secretary resigned, and previously valued advisers such as Dominic Cummings urged MPs to kick Johnson out immediately.

By 9 am Thursday, more than 50 members of the government had resigned. And yet Johnson and his inner circle were still swearing that he would stay in office, absurdly claiming that he, and he alone, had a “mandate” from voters that couldn’t be annulled by his parliamentary colleagues. It was as close to a “l’État c’est moi” vision of politics as anything ever articulated by a UK prime minister.

Fifteen minutes later, however, the game was up. A brief announcement from Downing Street declared that Johnson would be resigning later in the day—though it also stated that he intended to stay on as PM until October, when the Conservative Party could choose a new leader at its annual conference.

Given the political bloodletting of the past few days, it’s almost inconceivable that Johnson’s attempt to remain in office for three months will hold water. Johnson is neither trusted nor liked anymore, with erstwhile colleagues convinced that he is now a menace to the democracy. Far more likely, therefore, is that by week’s end he will have been forced to vacate 10 Downing Street and a caretaker PM will have been installed. It is an entirely humiliating, almost Shakespearian, denouement for a man who tried to personalize power more than any recent British prime minister, but who has ended up alienating almost all of his erstwhile allies and friends.

None of this will remedy the tremendous harm inflicted by the Johnson premiership. It won’t in and of itself reverse the destructive impact, which will be felt down the generations, of his embrace of a hard Brexit and his party’s support for a corrosive go-it-alone vision for Britain. It won’t undo the moral damage of vicious policies against asylum seekers. It won’t remedy the vast economic inequalities in the country, or the fact that breadlines have become a part of daily life in the UK—as they have, in recent years, in the US. It won’t erase the years of corruption and of lying normalized by Johnson.

Despite all of that, Boris Johnson’s demise is a massive victory for those in the UK who value the bedrock principles of democracy and parliamentary accountability. It is a long-overdue righting of Britain’s ship of state.

All of which stands in stark contrast to what is going on in the United States these days. How is it that Conservative parliamentarians in the UK were able to dispatch a narcissistic, power-hungry leader in two days of internal bloodletting, while their GOP counterparts in the US are still, 18 months after the January 6 insurrection, in thrall to the violent, irrationalist Trump cult?

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