By Gwynne Dyer
It’s generally bad form to quote another journalist, but Stewart Lee’s day job is stand-up comedian, so we can make an exception just this once. Writing in The Observer on Sunday, Lee offered a summary of Britain’s Conservative government as its twelve-year reign stumbles towards its close.
The Conservative politicians making headlines last week, he wrote, were “a serial adulterer and compulsive liar, a handsome but morally bankrupt financial whiz-kid, and a bully who sends immigrants to Rwanda.”
“That’s less like a government and more like a special team of convicted criminals given their freedom in exchange for accepting an impossible mission behind enemy lines in a 1970s Italian-funded war film. Operation Dynamite Bastards!!!!”
The ‘serial adulterer and compulsive liar’ was of course Prime Minister Al ‘Boris’ Johnson. He still won’t say that he has only the seven children he admits to by various mothers, but it was the ‘compulsive liar’ part of the indictment that was getting more attention last week.
For more than a year the Conservative government has been haunted by ‘Partygate’, an ongoing scandal about numerous drinks parties at the prime minister’s combination home and office, No. 10 Downing Street, even when the entire country was in Covid lock-down.
Revelations about these parties trickled out one by one starting about a year ago, each denied by Johnson both to the public and in parliament (where deliberately lying is a resigning offence). Eventually the police got involved, as the parties were criminal offences, and the first fines were handed out to Johnson and other senior Conservatives last week.
Johnson is due for up to five more fines. He is also going to have to brazen it out for lying to parliament, and while the Conservative majority there will save him for the moment, his party has irretrievably lost faith him
The ‘handsome but morally bankrupt financial whiz-kid’ is Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), who was universally seen as Johnson’s chief rival and possible replacement – until he fell from grace a week ago.
First it came out that Sunak’s wife, an Indian heiress, has been exploiting a tax loophole to avoid paying British taxes on her dividend income of $15 million a year. Then came out that Rishi and she had both kept their US-issued green cards. And that was the end of Sunak’s prime ministerial ambitions.
Then there’s the ‘bully who sends immigrants to Rwanda’, Home Secretary Priti Patel. She announced the plan last week while handing a £120 million down payment to Rwandan dictator Paul Kagame for taking asylum seekers off Britain’s hands.
It’s probably illegal, and Patel may even know that. She’s probably just throwing some red meat to the racist and anti-immigrant voters who helped to put Johnson & Co. into power in 2019. But she hasn’t solved the bigger problem, which is Johnson. Nobody has.
Johnson’s popularity has collapsed, and even his Churchill tribute act cannot restore it. But following the decline of Rishi Sunak’s star, the Conservatives have no other candidate who will tickle the electorate’s fancy. Moreover, Johnson certainly won’t go without a fight.
The likeliest outcome is stalemate: an unpopular government heading into a cost-of-living crisis with no visible strategy and two years to go until the next election.
The Johnson government had no policy beyond ‘Brexit’, which no longer inspires even its former enthusiasts, and his Labour rivals’ fondest wish is that he stays in office until that election rolls around at last.
He probably will.