By Owen Bell
On 12th April, the Metropolitan Police issued Boris Johnson a fixed penalty notice for attending a party at the height of the Covid-19 lockdown. This means that he is the first Prime Minister to have been found guilty of breaking the law.
Yet, later that day, loyal MPs batted away calls for his resignation. They cited Putin’s war in Ukraine and the need to focus on fixing the ‘post-pandemic’ economy. Ignoring the fact that the UK changed Prime Ministers during WWI and WWII, this defence of the famously slippery escape artist in No. 10 is wrong. Johnson can no longer “get on with the job”, because every day he stays as Prime Minister, he is doing more damage to our country.
In 1867 Walter Bagehot, then editor-in-chief of the Economist published The English Constitution. This book studied the relationship between Parliament, the Cabinet and the Monarchy and is considered a seminal work in the study of constitutional monarchy.
Bagehot distinguished the parts of the Government he called efficient (ministers, MPs, civil servants) and the parts he called dignified (the Crown). The efficient part, in his view, was free to tinker and make mistakes without losing public confidence so long as the distinguished ship of state carried sailing serenely on. Essentially, the noble element of government acted as a cloak for the efficient part where the real power lay.
In the 155 years since the publication of The English Constitution, the world has changed somewhat, meaning that many of Bagehot’s views are, at best, dated or, particularly those regarding race, utterly unacceptable. However, The English Constitution still carries lessons for how those in public office ought to behave. Specifically, the position of Prime Minister has evolved from the chair of the cabinet and a first among equals into a de-facto President of the United Kingdom.
Recent examples of particularly presidential Prime Ministers include Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Boris Johnson. Indeed, the member of Parliament for the 18th century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, endorsed this view and argued in January that if Conservative MPs replaced Boris Johnson, they would also have to dissolve Parliament and vote for a general election as the UK has an effective “Presidential system”.
The result of these changes is that the Prime Minister now has one foot in the efficient ship of state and one foot in the dignified. Therefore, compared to Bagehot’s day, the character of the Prime Minister now matters far more as it contributes to the overall public perception of the British State. The Queen personifies the qualities needed to sail the dignified ship, courage, honour, self-discipline, and stoicism that would earn even Seneca’s respect. Nowadays, when a Prime Minister fails to hold themselves to these standards, the dignified ship of state is damaged.
Even at his best moments, Boris Johnson’s most ardent admirers would struggle to argue that he lives up to the example set by the Queen, the fixed penalty notice proving that he broke the law is a new low. The Prime Minister breaking the law makes a mockery of the moral leadership that the modern office of Prime Minister must demonstrate, damaging confidence in both the dignified and efficient parts of government, and the longer he remains in office, the more damage he will do.
The first duty of any Prime Minister is to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom and the second is to act as a steward so that future citizens will enjoy the same freedoms and rights as we do today.
By violating lockdown laws, lying to Parliament about it, and attempting to cling to power, Boris Johnson has failed in his first duty by providing public evidence supporting the populist claim that “one rule for them, another for us”. This will reduce confidence in the rule of law in our country and leave us all less safe. He has also failed in his second duty; his actions will damage confidence in the dignified ship of state and reduce faith in democracy in this country. As a result of this damage, Boris Johnson will leave the rights of future citizens less confident than when he took office.
Our Prime Minister cannot take back his actions, but if he, in any way, is an honourable man, then he will seek to limit the damage those actions will do. In short, Boris Johnson must resign.
Image: Number 10 via Flickr