Brutal! Boris is Done

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Image: Flickr

The Conservative Party in Great Britain has a merciless policy when a failed, ethically flawed, or unpopular prime ministers has his or her head on the chopping block:  Cut and cut cleanly. A defiant Boris Johnson vowed to carry on Wednesday during raucous Prime Minster’s question period in the House of Commons.  But Johnson announced Thursday he will be leaving what he called “the best job in the world.”

The Tories have a lesson to teach, especially to the Republican Party in the United States.  Party loyalty has its limits, set by both self-interest and principle. The leader must be told, at times brutally, that it is time to go.

The message was conveyed in parliament by Sajid Javid who was, until Tuesday health secretary in Johnson’s cabinet.  A day later, citing the pileup of scandals, Javid told parliament: “This week, we have had reason to question the truth and integrity of what we’ve all been told.  At some point, we have to conclude that enough is enough.”

Modern history is full of such moments.  On May 7, 1940, as the Commons debated Britain’s failed response to Germany’s invasion of Norway, veteran Conservative MP Leopold Amery faced Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Evoking words of Oliver Cromwell, Amery told his friend of 35 years:  “You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you.  In the name of God, go!”

Chamberlain survived a no-confidence vote, but 78 MPs from his party voted against the government or abstained.  Chamberlain resigned, and Winston Churchill was called on to head a unity government, which took office May 10, the day Hitler launched his offensive against The Netherlands and Belgium.

A half-century later, with Margaret Thatcher increasingly imperious and unpopular, longtime senior cabinet minister Geoffrey Howe resigned his offices, and went before parliament.  He used a cricket simile to skewer Thatcher, saying: “It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, the moment the first balls are bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain.”

Howe signaled the vote of Tory MPs that would force Thatcher’s resignation, adding:  “The time has come for others to consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties, with which I myself have wrestled for perhaps too long.” A leadership vote by Tory MPs convinced Thatcher to stand down. The Conservatives found a less confrontational leader, John Major, and won the next election. 

The party has been well served by its ruthless tradition.  It booted PM Anthony Eden after the 1956 Suez invasion fiasco and held power under Harold MacMillan.  After Theresa May’s less-than-stellar performance at the polls, she was eased out by Brexit champion Boris Johnson, who led Tories to a sweeping 2019 victory.

Boris has a lasting, Trump-like problem, the inability to tell the truth.  Scandals mounted and were fueled by evasions and denials.  “Partygate” stood for boozy get-togethers at No. 10 Downing Street during a time when the country was in lockdown over the COVID-19 pandemic.  One get-together took place the night before Price Philip’s funeral.  Johnson became the first serving British prime minister to be sanctioned by the police.

The latest scandal was promotion of a prominent Conservative MP after a drunken episode in which he allegedly groped two men at a private members’ club in London. Johnson claimed – falsely – not to have known.

“I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values,” Victoria Atkins, a former justice minister, wrote Wednesday.  The ultimate total of resignations, from cabinet and among aides, reached 50.  Five junior ministers resigned in the same letter.  “We have been putting it off,” said Tobias Ellwood, a former cabinet minister.  “You’ve got to go to the dentist and get through it – getting rid of Boris is that trip to the dentist.”

The opposition reacted with glee.  Said Labour Party leader Keir Starmer: “Anyone quitting now, after defending all that, hasn’t got a shred of integrity. Isn’t this the first recorded case of the sinking ship fleeing the rats?”

It’s fascinating stuff to watch from this side of the Pond, but also a painful reminder.  A generation ago, honorable Republicans in Congress pushed Richard Nixon out of the presidency.  The 27-11 vote by the House Judiciary Committee to impeach Nixon was bolstered by votes from six GOP lawmakers.  Sens. Barry Goldwater and Hugh Scott led a delegation to the White House, telling Nixon it was time to go. 

We have some local memories, not to be forgotten.  Attorney General Slade Gorton went before the Seattle Rotary Club in 1973 to call for Nixon’s resignation.  (Gorton would support impeachment of Trump more than four decades later.) Deputy Attorney General William Ruckelshaus was fired when he refused to dismiss Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox.

Where are such folks today?  Just 10 of 213 House Republicans voted to impeach Trump after the January 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, along with only seven out of 50 Republicans in the U.S. Senate.  Only 35 House Republicans supported a resolution to create a 9/11-style independent commission to probe events of January 6.  The resolution was blocked in the Senate by Mitch McConnell. House Republican Whip Liz Cheney was purged from her leadership post for supporting a full investigation.

The supine loyalty toward Trump, particularly by House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy and such deputies as Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., is morally indefensible and politically obtuse.  With economic issues favoring Republicans, the attempt by Trump to seize power — and possibly running again in 2024 – is one major obstacle that can derail the GOP in 2022 midterms.

The Conservatives of the United Kingdom, both ruthless and principled, have claimed the messy scalp of Boris Johnson.  Outside No. 10 on Thursday, the outgoing Prime Minister acknowledged getting the message:  “In politics, no one is remotely indispensable.”

We’ll never hear Donald Trump say that.  Others have failed to say it to him.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

10 COMMENTS

  1. The obvious parallel is Republicans and Donald Trump. But another one is looming: Who will tell Joe Biden that he needs to bow out? It’s hard when there are no obvious scandals and grievous errors, just an unpresidential pattern of leading from behind and failing to shape a message. Maybe the only person who can deliver the unwelcome message to Joe is Obama?

  2. Joel,
    Your dependably clever ink might better be spent in defense of the oval office’s current occupant. The least popular President in modern history is much in need of your help. In spite of the press’s best efforts to suppress all suggestions of scandal and blunder, the man seems bent on his own form of self destruction.

    • Interesting comment, Bob. Remember journalism is DEAD. I get the feeling Mr. Connelly would rather make 3 left hand turns instead of 1 right.

  3. It’s an odd leap from Trump and Johnson, two leaders of ethically challenged character, to Biden, not yet two years into his presidency and facing a degree of Republican intransigency even beyond that Obama faced. And it is so unlike you, David, to be captured by the conventional wisdom of the moment that it is Biden that is the problem. I refer you to Dana Milbank’s WaPost column yesterday for a little perspective.

    • My thoughts exactly. Biden is a victim of Republicans’ shameless sabotage of everything the administration is trying to do for the benefit if the country to make sure he has no victory for Ds to run on. If only our conservatives cared more about the country, the rule of law, the fate of democracy and our constitutional rights than they do about retaking congressional majorities so they can hand power back to a treasonous narcissist or one of his wannabes!

  4. Patience, people. Don’t relive dusty historical analogies harking back to the likes of Cromwell, Chamberlain and Anthony Eden. Wait to turn Joe Biden into a lamb duck until after the midterms. In the interim, we can test messages from Gavin, Pete and Beto as well as Elizabeth, Amy and Kirsten, not to mention the ever-present Bernie. By the way, there’s a delicious piece in The Seattle Times this morning taking a shot at pundits who missed the mark.

  5. Thanks to Joel for directing our attention to this sordid political scene. But we must be cautious about connecting any political dots between the U.S.A. and the U.K.
    Over there, voters in recent local elections sent the message to Parliamentary Tories that Boris was well past his overripe pull date as their nation’s leader. Those big Tory losses ripped the rose-colored lenses from Westminster eyeballs. They read the political tea leaves with the grim prediction hinted re what awaits when a general election is called. Tories (especially first-term MPs) know that saving their posteriors when they must all stand again in their own ridings will be a dodgy business.

    Flabby Brit Labourites and once-heroic, now-scarce Liberals in the shriveled British political middle will need to figure out how to connect with disenchanted folk in a general election. Not so long ago Johnson led his party to a walloping victory over swung-left Labour. Since then, under tawdry Boris, almost everything has gone wrong, disappointing voters who hoped to see improved government services and independence from EU regulations. Metaphorically political tides in Britain are far more extreme, swift and politically deadly than are produced in the U.S., as are its coastal ones that present plus-minus extremes that would terrify Puget Sounder mariners. But right now the fight is for UK’s majority party’s soul – deserving our close attention. Americans staff and fund military bases there, continuing to prop up NATO as they have for the past half-century. Cards were called in the Great Game several months ago in Ukraine. Let us see what Britain’s conservatives can pull together now to do themselves and the rest of the world some good.

  6. According to Robin Ashenden, “The world Corbyn offered looked bitter, shriveled, paranoid, joyless, and likely to be populated by ideologues who could barely register humour, let alone produce it. The rest of us—the majority—would be shunted to the margins.” (https://quillette.com/2022/07/08/king-boris-from-restoration-to-regicide/)

    Compared to Leftist scolds, when elected, Boris Johnson was a breath of fresh air from strident ideologues. Apart from the fact that they are both colorful characters, parallels between the Johnson situation and the Trump situation are mostly nonexistent, except for establishment disdain for both Trump and Johnson.

    To paraphrase from above “The supine loyalty toward Biden, particularly by the Speaker of the House and such deputies as Rep. Adam Smith (Bellevue)., is morally indefensible and politically obtuse.”

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