Boris didn’t break the system

8 July 2022

4:12 PM

8 July 2022

4:12 PM

Britain’s Donald Trump. A constitutional vandal. A grave and potentially even systemic threat to the rule of law and representative democracy.

Boris Johnson has been called all of those things in the last few years. Most of that criticism was cobblers, and we reached peak cobblers earlier this week when he hunkered down in No. 10 muttering inanely about blood and fighting to the death.

Those few hours saw many people who really should know better comparing Johnson’s last chapter to Donald Trump’s insurrection. Those comparisons were ridiculous and wrong. As prime minister and leader of the governing party, Johnson retained the right to occupy the office and use its powers (including patronage) as he saw fit. A lot of people didn’t like the way he used those powers, and said so – sometimes by quitting his government.

It was all unedifying and squalid – and entirely constitutional. Likewise the idea that Johnson should remain PM until the governing party selects a new leader. Again, a lot of people dislike that idea – I’m not wild about it either – but let’s not claim it’s an assault on the British constitutional order. See also: silly Tory claims in 2010 about Gordon Brown ‘squatting’ in No. 10 until a new government was formed. That’s the system, folks.

And that system has proved much more resilient than a lot of people gave it credit for. Since 2019, a narrative has grown up that Boris Johnson is Britain’s Trump or even our Viktor Orban. He swept to victory in 2019 on a populist campaign then dominated his party’s cadres. Parts of the media kowtowed to him. He ignored the ‘good chap’ conventions that underpin parts of our constitution.

And – more shamefully still – he passed some bad laws and made some bad decisions that undermined Britain’s international standing and our heritage as a decent, humane country based on the rule of law. Yet he did it through a parliamentary process that means those policies can be overturned, if someone gets the votes to do so.

And for all the power that Johnson amassed and occasionally used, he never became overmighty. Not for want of trying, perhaps, though a key constraint on him was always his own lack of application. Even if he dreamt of overturning the democratic order, he lacked the competence to do much real damage. Britain’s fundamental commitment to the democratic order is great. Boris Johnson is small.

The final proof of all this is of course his downfall. Less than three years after that thumping election victory handed him what he liked to pretend was a huge personal mandate, he’s on the way out. And he’s going for the very simple and traditional reason that he can’t command the confidence of a few hundred MPs and the voters they answer to.

The legacy he leaves his party remains uncertain: the Tories may yet be unwise enough to retain his some of his rule-breaking and fundamentally unTory contempt for institutions and conventions. But changing the Conservative party is not the same thing as changing Britain.

Boris Johnson may have pushed at the constraints that a constitutional democracy imposed on power, but he did not break them. Trumpism may yet unmake America, but Britain and its constitution will survive Boris Johnson. He fought the system, and the system won.

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