Tories occasionally like to pretend that they are not wasting their talents and lives defending a bottom-feeding demagogue. They lecture critics who damn Boris Johnson as a British Trump and tell us we have him all wrong. Fraser Nelson, my own editor here, once argued that, far from being a sponger and fraud, the Prime Minister was a liberal conservative, a centrist, indeed, who had absorbed and defeated populism.
I wonder what Fraser thinks now. I wonder whether Conservative MPs and Conservative voters realise what Johnson is doing to them. All power corrupts, but Johnson’s power corrupts all who defend him. To maintain it, Johnson is screaming desperate lies at those who hold him to account. Like Trump’s Republicans, Conservatives are now going along with the lies because — well, perhaps one day they will explain themselves. My guess is the answer lies in a mixture of cowardice, stupidity, habit, tribalism, fear of giving an inch of ground to Labour, a secret contempt for the fickle-minded public they believe will move on to the next distraction, and an absence of political vision that means they can see no alternative to sinking deeper into the mire.
For weeks they have defended Johnson as he screams abuse like a spoiled brat caught stealing from his mother’s purse. On Monday the Prime Minister was cornered and in Trumpian fashion reached for the QAnon paranoid fantasy that Keir Starmer was part of a conspiracy to allow paedophiles to get away with raping children.
By then, it was already obvious that he didn’t mean a word of his apology to a public who had put their lives, families and friendship on hold while Johnson and his court partied. His barks and swagger throughout the parliamentary debate were evidence of a man without the capacity for remorse.
Starmer however was speaking for millions when he asked Conservative MPs what they were going to do about him. This is the real issue and the authentically worthwhile question. Although journalists have written endless articles about Johnson, the truth remains that he is a boring man. Anyone who has had to deal with an egomaniac will know the type who only loves themselves, and know as well that there is nothing more to be said or done about them.
Not all Conservative MPs are sociopaths or sycophants, however. Among them are politicians who lost relatives to Covid, and men and women with solid principles. Starmer appealed to their better natures. He asked them to pause for a moment and ask if they liked the people Johnson was turning them into.
Honesty and decency matter, he said. Conservative politicians knew better than anyone that Johnson was incapable of either. Only they could ‘end this farce’. Only they could spare the country from ‘a Prime Minister totally unworthy of his responsibilities.’ Did they have the guts to act? Or would they ‘heap their reputation, the reputation of their party, and the reputation of this country on the bonfire that is the Prime Minister’s leadership?’
Sensing the danger Johnson went into his toddler tantrum mode, which has served him so well whenever he is cornered. He bawled that nothing Startmer said could be taken seriously because he was a former director of public prosecutions who ‘spent most of his time prosecuting journalists and failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile, as far as I can make out’.
I suppose that by writing about Johnson’s lies I am playing his game. Ever since the Brexit referendum Johnson has spread outrageous claims — the EU was about to allow Turkey to send millions of Muslim migrants the UK’s way, Brexit would produce hundreds of millions for the NHS — then sat back and smirked as his opponents spread the lie as they refuted it. A clever tactic, to be sure, but one that shows Johnson’s barely veiled contempt for Conservative voters. He must believe they are either so stupid that they believe his stories, or so venal that they know the lie for what it is but admire his cunning for spreading it.
But this is a newspaper, and we must say that for the record the Savile story comes from the darkest corner of the far-right web. Starmer never oversaw allegations against Savile or took a decision not to prosecute him.
As we are insisting on accuracy here, I should be fair to Donald Trump, who has every right to resent the comparison to Boris Johnson. During his presidency, Trump retweeted accounts linked to the QAnon fable that a powerful cabal of Democrats and elites were trafficking and abusing children, and refused to condemn the conspiracy theory. But give the worthless man his due, he never sunk as low as Johnson and endorsed it.
As if to answer Starmer’s question, Dominic Raab showed he was more than willing to heap his reputation onto the bonfire. Pressed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Raab said he couldn’t ‘substantiate’ the accusation against Starmer. But when pressed to say that the reason he could not substantiate it was because it was false, he ducked and weaved and said that telling lies to the Commons was just a part of ‘the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate’ — which, to be fair again, it most certainly is during the Johnson premiership.
They say you must prove yourself by murdering a man before the Mafia will allow you to join. In Johnson’s Conservative party, you must murder your reputation. How many Conservative politicians and voters are willing to do it? A few, many, most, nearly all? They should be in no doubt that as a true egomaniac Johnson won’t worry for a second about dragging them down with him. The only interesting question today is whether they are prepared to put up a fight as he pulls them under.
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