The country stopped caring whether Boris Johnson broke the rules – thank goodness the civil service didn’t
Zoe Williams/ The Guardian:
What could Boris Johnson possibly have done in Chequers to make the Cabinet Office refer his diary to the police? Obviously we couldn’t speculate, as it’s now a police matter.
We could wonder about layers of misdemeanour, and the precise point at which civil servants would cede their own judgment to that of the law. We could speculate wildly about background political agendas, and whether, if Liz Truss’s premiership had survived, this decision would have been somehow strangled in its cradle. Most probably, we would move on quite fast to the character of the last prime minister but one: he is the Raith Rovers of politicians, the person in whom faith is never repaid.
Johnson has previously, in any given crisis, found people to defend him. There is always a justification, always a grey area: there is presumably always a benefit to being his faithful lieutenant. Since his departure from Downing Street, it seems that reward may be a place in the House of Lords via his long-delayed honours list, though whether he can make good on those nominations is yet to be seen.
There are so many mysteries surrounding the man – the continuing loyalty of his own family, when they so plainly disagreed with him politically; the allegiance of the Daily Mail, long after he ceased to chime with the values of their readers; the wild enthusiasm of Nadine Dorries, torching her own reputation, such as it was, performing fandangos with nothing to celebrate – that suddenly make sense through the lens of his honours list. But the raw facts, whether his behaviour in Chequers was illegal or not, are these: whatever he is accused of, whatever his allies have to waive, whatever casuistic defences they float, they will always end up humiliated, because the next thing will be worse.
By the time the facts of the diary are established, this story will have died. It adheres to none of the rules of drama. There’s no possible reversal of expectation: if he’s guilty, that chimes exactly with what we know of his character. If he’s not guilty, that’s not a story, and he’s been found in breach of enough rules already that a simple “not on this occasion” would barely cause a ripple. But there’s something else driving the lack of interest in this, something deeper than “it’s not interesting”.
The election of Johnson, this known chancer, this fabled liar, was like a national fever dream. Caught up in the excitement of his rule-breaking energy and bracing affectlessness, people voted for him, and commentators post-rationalised his virtues from the scale of his victory, and those who declined to get on board were shunted to the sidelines, as yesterday’s people, and boring with it.
His downfall was fun to watch for everyone: his opponents enjoyed being right, and his cheerleaders weren’t called upon to reflect upon or account for their mistakes because the spectacle was its own event. Borismania was like a fever dream after too much blue cheese; nobody wants to talk about it, ever again. This is the compact between crowds – whatever crackerjack scheme the group, in its hysteria, jumps aboard, you can make the memory go away so long as you disperse.
This is why an impartial civil service is important, for bigger reasons than simply implementing policy, which in itself is a moderately big reason. It does not abide by the logic of crowds, it has no respect for zeitgeist. It follows the rules, as it understands them, it enforces them, to the limits of its authority, and when its authority reaches its limit, it doesn’t simply get bored and move on, it refers upwards to the police. This is vital: people like Johnson survive on other peoples’ short attention span. They wither on contact with real-life consequences.
The truth is, it does matter whether or not Johnson broke the rules; it matters how often, and it matters whether he knew he was doing it. It matters whether he lied to parliament. It matters how he arrived at the rules, it matters who else was punished for their breach. It matters because of the political culture it enabled and ushered in, whether that was Truss’s short, but unhinged, time in office, which is causing so much hardship to this day, or Rishi Sunak’s weak leadership, heckled from the sidelines by “alt-right” voices whose place in cabinet is frankly terrifying.
Johnson matters because if he doesn’t matter, we have to deny the reality of our own experience, that this period of political dishevelment is unique. The wisdom of the crowd is saying, move along; the sagacity of the civil service is saying, wait, this isn’t over.