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Boris Johnson, just like Richard Nixon, will be brought down by vanity

Boris Johnson’s Tories, like Nixon’s Republicans, have become synonymous with falsehood and sleaze
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson at a Conservative Party convention on 6 October 2021 (AFP)

Ego destroyed Richard Nixon. Searching for control over all his subordinates and over history’s verdict on his administration, the US president installed a tape machine to record his every word. This proved his downfall.

Once the existence of the tapes was known, Nixon's opponents fought a court battle to force the White House to release them. Then the Supreme Court ordered him to release the tapes. They included the famous “smoking gun” tape, which documented Nixon and his chief of staff, Bob Haldeman, plotting the Watergate cover-up.

It is now plain that Britain has to deal with a venal and amoral prime minister

Thereafter impeachment became inevitable and Nixon was finished.

Karl Marx noted that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Nixon, the president who ended the Vietnam War and went to China, was a momentous historical figure. By comparison, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is negligible. Except that he too faces the prospect of being brought down by ego.

In order to build the personality cult that has defined his premiership, Johnson hired three taxpayer-funded photographers. Their official purpose was to “document the work of government”.

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Their unstated purpose was to control and massage the public image of the prime minister and his entourage, with approved shots issued free of charge to a grateful client media showing Johnson industriously studying his papers, in conversation with foreign leaders and doing other statesmanlike work.

An early example of the genre was a widely used portrait of the prime minister’s dog Dilyn frolicking in the snow - completely irrelevant to government, but softening the prime minister’s public image.

This week these photographers have suddenly become a deadly problem. They are no longer simply a cheerful addition to the Number 10 publicity machine. They possess photographic evidence that has the power to destroy the Johnson premiership. 

Battling to the end

The Sunday Times reported this weekend that Johnson personally "instigated" a Downing Street party on 13 November 2020 to mark the exit of Lee Cain, the former Number 10 director of communications. At this party - in an account that has been challenged by Downing Street - Johnson reportedly made a speech, poured alcoholic drinks for guests and drank alcohol himself. 

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Crucially, one of Johnson’s snappers was reportedly present - and took photographs. 

It should be stressed for the benefit of readers who are understandably confused by the so-called "partygate" saga that this was a different event from the birthday party in June 2020 for which the prime minister has already been fined for breaking Covid rules.

We are talking about another party and a separate police investigation. If these weekend reports are true, they are lethal for Johnson - for two reasons.

Firstly, because the alleged infraction - namely that he instigated the party himself and poured drinks - is more serious. Secondly, because Johnson is on the record as stating the party never took place. This denial is especially meaningful because it took place in the House of Commons.

Asked at prime minister’s questions in December whether there had been a party on 13 November 2020, Johnson replied “no”, but added: “I’m sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed at all times.”

The denial can be seen on video here. If the prime minister was lying, parliamentary convention demands that he should resign, though it is generally accepted that Johnson - if nothing else a fighter - will refuse to do so and will battle to the end.

'Rogue prime minister'

It is now plain - as I have been warning readers of Middle East Eye since the early days of the Johnson premiership - that Britain has to deal with a venal and amoral prime minister. On Sunday, Lord Hennessy, Britain’s most celebrated constitutional historian and normally the mildest of men, was driven to speak out.

Using extraordinary language, he labelled Johnson a "rogue prime minister", adding that he had "sullied" his office "like no other, turning it into an adventure playground for one man’s narcissistic vanity".

the annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, northwest England, on 6 October, 2021 (AFP)
The annual Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, northwest England, on 6 October 2021 (AFP)

For good measure, he declared that “the Queen’s first minister is … unworthy of her, her parliament, her people and her kingdom". He added: "I cannot remember a day when I’ve been more fearful for the wellbeing of the constitution."

It’s relevant to remember that Hennessy supervised the PhD thesis of Britain’s most senior civil servant, Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, today the prime minister’s most senior official adviser. While I doubt that Hennessy alerted the cabinet secretary to his astounding intervention, I am sure Case agrees with it, because it’s impossible to dispute what the constitutional historian said.

Falsehood and sleaze

It is easy to demonstrate that the prime minister is a rule-breaker and utters falsehoods. I keep a website that records Johnson’s lies and falsehoods.

For 200 years, the Conservative party has been the most successful political party in the western world. Under Johnson, its reputation is being destroyed

It details more than 50 occasions when he has misled parliament, in defiance of the ministerial code, each occasion a resignation offence. Nothing like this has happened before under any prime minister of any political party.

Today parliament returns. Johnson is booked to speak in person to Conservative MPs and appeal for their backing. He and his supporters will argue that it would be wrong to get rid of him while war rages in Ukraine. They will laud Johnson’s shambolic and probably illegal plan to export refugees to Rwanda as a popular measure that will win public support.

Behind the scenes, Johnson’s enforcers will, as usual, seek to threaten, blackmail and bribe MPs. I expect these tactics will work, and Johnson will survive, for the time being. 

But there is another parallel between Johnson and Nixon. The Watergate tapes made Nixon’s defenders look increasing stupid in their own districts. Now Tory MPs are paying a heavy political price for standing by Johnson. 

For 200 years the Conservative Party has been the most successful political party in the western world. Under Johnson its reputation is being destroyed. Boris Johnson’s Tories, like Nixon’s Republicans, have become synonymous with falsehood and sleaze. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in both 2022 and 2017, and was also named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Drum Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He was also named as British Press Awards Columnist of the Year in 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His latest book is The Fate of Abraham: Why the West is Wrong about Islam, published in May by Simon & Schuster. His previous books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran and The Assault on Truth: Boris Johnson, Donald Trump and the Emergence of a New Moral Barbarism.
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