UK Politics

Unelected prime ministers: a revolving door

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In early October, I stood in a Viennese bar and watched Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz resign in the midst of a corruption scandal. His resignation speech was played proudly in a bar full of students, who were all revelling in this historical moment unfurling in front of them when I turned to a friend and plucked all the fun out of the room with a simple, inquisitive question.

“So, what’s going to happen next?” His beaming smile disappeared momentarily, as he briefly explained how another senior party member was already primed to take over. In his words, “so nothing will change really, but yeah…” He then turned away from me to enjoy the rest of the program.

My friend failed to remember that I’d watched this same series back home a few years earlier. Although Theresa May was never accused of corruption, she too stood only recently on our television screens, and exactly like Kurz, described what an honour it was to serve her country and how she had always had its best interests at heart.

The reality is that enough people around both May and Kurz felt that their countries’ best interests were served without them as leaders. Despite his best efforts to cling on, many feel the same now about Boris Johnson. As a result, calls for resignation are once more out in force. This time stronger as Johnson frantically tries to escape accountability for failures of a much more personal nature than May ever did.

Now consider you are in a bar watching Johnson get attacked from all sides of the Commons and a slightly confused Austrian trying to piece this all together turns to you and asks what will follow. Should Johnson finally succumb to the growing demands for him to resign? What would you be able to tell them? That paragons of virtue Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will swoop in and lead us into an era of integrity and honour?

Your response would probably not differ entirely from that of my Viennese friend, and nor should it really. Johnson himself is a walking image of the broken process that follows a sudden resignation. In 2019, he had managed to position himself just close enough to the limelight but far enough from May to become the leading candidate for new Tory leadership. Yet, this was not an example of righting previous wrongs, it did not reward accountability or suggest sings of progress.

Instead, Johnson was rewarded for strategic self-positioning, and yet we seem dumbfounded by the idea that he went on to spend his time in office continuing to act in accordance with his own individual interests. This was how he had behaved his entire life, from his ‘disgracefully cavalier attitude’ at Eton, to his evolution into prime minister. We should not have expected much else and should similarly be wary of his predecessor if they are instated under not too indifferent circumstances.

If our next prime minister is once again appointed through a hastily held Tory leadership contest, we will end up with a figure who has spent recent weeks jostling for place – someone who has removed themselves from Johnson’s scandalous ways ever so slightly but remained prominent enough throughout recent history to be a well-regarded name.

The odds are, that our hypothetical next PM would have known about Partygate and various other scandals long ago. Their moral code may begin to kick in, now that the opportunity for leadership is in front of them, however this sense of integrity was lacking when so many needed it more.

Our PM in waiting, will have undoubtedly stood by, whilst Johnson and his government have continuously acted dishonourably towards the British public through handing Covid contracts to their friends, letting the bodies pile high in their thousands and by hosting parties whilst instructing others to remain in lockdown. Their only outstanding recent quality will have been their recent ability to remain unaccountable.

When we recognise these many recent examples of contempt in their full context, we don’t see a scandal, we see a pattern of behaviour. Traits of character – or lack of, that apply not just to Boris Johnson, but all of those around him that have enabled this pattern to run its course.

This distinction is key, because a scandal is a one-off, a single firework that wakes everyone up during a quiet night, and theoretically, one that could go off again at any time. A pattern, however, can be traced and observed to prevent it from continuing.

A single resignation does little to reverse this pattern as it does not root out the systemic causes behind it. If anything, the haphazard electoral process that follows makes it more likely that further government failures will follow.

If we, as a society, are therefore able to benefit in any way from this latest revelation of government dishonesty, more consequences must follow Johnson’s resignation. Whether in the form of tougher legal punishment or perhaps even a general election, a more expansive course of action is required to reverse this trend of non-democratic figures acting in non-democratic ways.

For this to occur, it is key that opposition parties do not submit solely to the temptation of the Partygate hysteria, however strong it may be. Instead of focusing purely on the scandal, they must highlight the pattern that precedes it and recognise the foundations upon which current events have been built on.

This may be another ‘fun-sucking’ moment for many – however during the short-term excitement, there is a danger that many lose sight of the longer-term consequences of allowing a group of leopards to try once again to convince us that they have changed their spots.

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