In defence of Boris: would his replacement be any better?

14 January 2022

2:51 AM

14 January 2022

2:51 AM

Keir Starmer, aided and abetted by Boris Johnson’s many internal enemies within the Conservative party, has managed to get into the public consciousness the idea that if Boris Johnson attended a ‘party’ during lockdown, he should resign.

There are a number of good reasons that the Tory party might feel it was time for a new leader, but the notion that attending an at-best semi-licit drinks event in one’s own back garden counts as a grounds to remove a prime minister seems to me to be wildly disproportionate.

People say: ‘Those that make laws should not break them.’ And, of course, that it correct. But it doesn’t follow that any PM that broke a law ought to resign because of it. We need to distinguish between the idea that something is wrong and that something requires a resignation.

Violating lockdown rules in May 2020 was a matter many people were fined over. Perhaps the event Boris Johnson attended should lead to the organisers, or perhaps even the attendees, being fined. It also strikes me as extremely weird behaviour to hold a press conference telling the public they all had to meet in groups of no more than two then, less than a hour later, in literally the same building (presumably attended by some people that had organised the press conference and its messaging) hold an event attended by 40 people.

However, we need to get our priorities right here. We should care about holding our leaders to account when they misbehave and subjecting them to fines like everyone else when required. But I’d much rather have a prime minister that gets the big calls right on key policy questions but wrongly drinks wine with others in his own garden, than a prime minister who abides by every detail of lockdown rules but gets the big policy calls wrong.

Many other politicians, including Keir Starmer, got all or almost all the big calls on Covid policy wrong through 2021, whilst Boris Johnson’s calls were much better. Do you really think it would have been better to have a prime minister who kept schools shut last year, who gave way to talk of thousands of cases a day and the ‘Johnson Variant’ in July, who submitted to threats of high hospitalisations in September if schools were allowed to re-open, who enacted Plan B in October (as Labour demanded), or who returned us to ‘Step two’ in response to Omicron and talk of 6,000 deaths per day, provided that that alternative prime minister hadn’t drunk wine in his own garden?

Boris Johnson’s personal morality is highly questionable, his personal organisation shambolic and his sense of probity dodgy on many an occasion. But on policy questions he frequently gets the big calls right (or at least much better than his opponents’ calls). It is decadent, indulgent thinking for us to assume that is of no value and we can obviously have a prime minister who combines personal virtue with policy excellence. Politics isn’t like that. It is messy and involves compromises and we are often forced to choose between that which is flawed and that which is worse.

Maybe Boris Johnson’s time is up. Perhaps his real function was to rescue the Tory party from the bitter in-fighting of the May era that led it to getting just 8.8 per cent of the vote in the 2019 Euro elections, and then to see off the threat of the communist and quasi-communist Corbynites.

‘Levelling up’ and similar soundbite agendas never appeared to amount to much – though it is fair to point out that Covid arrived so soon after Boris took office that he never got to implement any of his own positive agenda. Maybe in another world he’d have proved the sceptics wrong.

But if Boris is to go it surely ought to be over something more substantial than attending an event the organisers might have been fined a few hundred pounds, at most, for holding. Covid made many of us petty in our judgments of others over their minor lockdown breaches or whether they clapped the NHS enthusiastically enough. It will be a shame if as a nation we’ve become really so petty that we think improperly drinking wine in his own garden is a good reason to dispose of a prime minister.


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