Anything tainted by Johnson’s lies must be undone. This includes his Brexit | Jonathan Freeland

So Boris Johnson is a Remainer after all. Hanging on to No. 10, he seems to have the same vision of departure as of rules: that this is for little people. The one constant tenet of his career has been cakeism, his ardent belief that only he should be able to have his cake and eat it. And so, true to that spirit to the end, he decided to both resign and stay in office.

Of course, it is a scandal that he is still there. Defenders of the Downing Street squatter say it’s no different to how David Cameron and Theresa May remained in office while the Conservative Party – not the country – chose a new Prime Minister. But this situation is quite different. Johnson was rejected because his colleagues decided he lacked the basic integrity to do the job, that he could not be trusted with the keys to the house. By allowing him to stay there, possibly until October, the highest figures of conservatism are once again forced to repeat nonsense in public, contradicting the words they had spoken no more than a day earlier. , just to accommodate it (literally). Like a vaudeville hypnotist who can make his subjects throw cream pies in their own faces, Johnson’s ability to hypnotize his subordinates into idiocy – even now – is a sight to behold.

If they come to their senses and kick him out sooner, they should let the cameras in so we can have one of those post-overthrow videos of the dictator, showing the gold wallpaper and the £3,675 service trolley. At the very least, his successor’s first act should be to order a thorough cleaning of the premises. And not just physically. Given how Johnson burned down the ethics counsellors, there needs to be a full, independent audit of what happened in that building during the three years he was housed there. Leaks and resourceful reporters have revealed a lot, some of which is only now coming to light; but there will be more.

And yet, I can see the risk here, for Labor in particular. The danger is that the discomfort is identified with one man, so its removal is deemed to have solved the problem. Think of it as the 1990 syndrome. The Tories successfully loaded the discontent generated by 11 years of Tory rule onto the back of Margaret Thatcher alone, so that once she was sent to the wasteland, the party could presenting himself as cleansed of his sins – a gesture so effective that John Major won a majority two years later. Many voters felt they had a new government, so there was no need for another.

That’s why Keir Starmer – now spurred on by Durham Police’s decision not to issue a fine or bring any charges for ‘beergate’, and the moral stance of having promised to resign if the decision had taken another direction – is right to say the problem is not the last 12 months but the last 12 years. Because of this, the party missed a turn after last month’s confidence vote, when 211 Tories remained with Johnson. Starmer barely mentioned it in subsequent Prime Minister’s Questions, but he could have used the moment to make it clear that now all of Johnson’s misdeeds were not his alone, but concerned everyone who had supported.

Indeed, if this week’s resignation is to provide more than a brief catharsis, if it is to banish not just Johnson but Johnsonism and the conditions that made it possible, offering broader lessons for our politics, then the record will have to be much broader – and it will have to include the question that dare not speak its name.

Clearly, the Conservative Party has the most to answer for, choosing this man as leader in 2019 when everything you needed to know about Johnson was already known. They say character is fate. The usual lies and deceptions that proved his undoing, and ours, were never hidden: their outcome was predicted from the start. Dishonesty is the nature of man, and the conservatives who made him the leader of our nation knew it.

But Labour, too, has a case to answer. In 2019, he offered the electorate an alternative to Johnson who, by every possible data point, was shown to be a loser and a bad loser. By sticking with Jeremy Corbyn in the face of all this evidence, Labor threw the door of Downing Street wide open for Johnson and all but ushered him in. As election analyst Peter Kellner has written: only the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn. Johnson was not an electoral wizard, endowed with some sort of magical appeal. He was just lucky to have a gifted opponent who was even more suspicious than him: Corbyn’s ratings plummeted after his response to the 2018 Salisbury spy poisoning and never recovered. The blame for this lies not with those who pointed out this obvious reality at the time, but with those who refused to heed the warning.

There are also other institutions that have lessons to learn. A media that indulged in a liar, viewing his fraud as amusing and mischievous rather than disqualifying. A broader political culture that places a very particular notion of charisma above all other qualities, a notion closely tied to class. Johnson’s shtick was tied to English upper-class mannerisms and tropes, isolating him from the consequences of behavior that would have ended a career decades ago if committed by someone with a different accent and from a different school.

But the most important and obvious conclusion is the one that is talked about the least. Assessing Johnson’s legacy, his admirers put Brexit at the top of the list. They are right to do so, because it was indeed a transformative act and he was responsible for it, both as the driving force behind the Vote Leave campaign and as Prime Minister. But now he is being condemned as a liar by his own supporters, including staunch Brexiters. Surely a country will lose faith in the product it bought when the man who sold it to it was denounced as an impostor?

It should, but few are yet willing to insist on it. Naomi Smith of the anti-Brexit group Best for Britain observed in focus groups that telling voters to quit that they’ve been lied to plays badly: “You can see a stiffening of the back. People say, ‘I’m not stupid, I wasn’t fooled.’

It might be wiser to proceed slowly. Smith suspects that Tory leadership candidates, even pro-Brexit ones, will again be wary of Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, for example, with its cavalier breach of international agreements: they will talk instead about the need to play by the rules and restore Britain’s reputation. It’s a beginning. Meanwhile, reality does the heavy lifting of discrediting Brexit, in the form of lost growth, increased bills, increased hassle and the absence of any tangible non-expressible benefit. by abstract names such as “freedom” or “sovereignty”.

The dots are all there. Voters are already starting to join them, even as Starmer insists the subject is essentially closed. Politicians may not want to say it, but this week is a milestone in the fate of Brexit. The main author of Britain’s exit from the EU has fallen: the image of his disastrous project goes in the same direction.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

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