Covid 19 may no longer be a pandemic but in its trail, it has left behind an excruciating pandemic within the ruling Conservative Party with devastation that few had ever dreamt of, in British politics.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to resign from office in September 2022 because of the entire Partygate scandal. This week the damning report published by the Privileges Committee recommended that Johnson would have been banned from the House of Commons for 90 days (far exceeding the normal 30-day ban in most cases) had he not pre-emptively resigned as a Member of Parliament (MP) last weekend after receiving a draft of the report. It also recommended that Johnson is not issued with former parliamentary members' pass.
The Opposition supports the recommendations, and some have gone further to demand he should not be paid £115,000 lifelong annual salary as an ex-PM. But the Conservative Party under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, is further fractured.
Boris Johnson's Trumpian Slip?
It is believed a significant number of Conservative MPs are expected to abstain during Monday’s vote on whether to endorse the sanctions against Johnson, which would mean the motion will be passed after the all-party Privileges Committee concluded that the former Prime Minister misled the House of Commons over what he knew about the parties during lockdown at 10 Downing Street.
MPs have been told it will be a free vote, with no party whip to vote either way, meaning they are not obliged to participate. The committee reflects the party balance in the House, with four members from the Conservatives, two from the opposition Labour Party and one from the Scottish National Party. By tradition, it is chaired by a lawmaker from the main opposition party, in this case, Harriet Harman, whom Johnson accused of having the "sole political objective of finding me guilty and expelling me from Parliament.” The statement itself is a lie as the majority in the committee is comprised of the Conservatives.
Like his American former counterpart, Donald Trump, Johnson has tried to throw the Privileges Committee under the bus, pointing fingers at its authenticity. In Trumpian style with an English accent, he declared the report was “rubbish,” "deranged” and a "complete load of tripe."
But Conservative MP Tim Loughton said, "We voted to set up this committee, so we need to support its work whether or not people like the outcome. It’s a legitimate committee of the house and it’s a pretty damning report. It’s a very sad end to Boris Johnson’s parliamentary career, but he’s brought it upon himself and he decided rather than stand his ground and argue his case, he’s decided to fly outside of parliament as he resigned last week and now appears to blame the Prime Minister for some sort of plot. He should shut up and go away.”
Boris and Trump: Flagbearers of Populism
Even before the dust could settle on the report, The Daily Mail, announced and confirmed Johnson, now branded as the most disgraced PM in British history, would be their Saturday columnist earning a high six-figure sum. But Acoba (Advisory Committee on Business Appointments), an anti-corruption watchdog, which requires former ministers to apply to it before taking up a new appointment or role for up to two years after leaving government, has announced Johnson has committed a "clear breach”.
A spokesperson said, “An application received 30 minutes before an announcement is a clear breach. We have written to Mr Johnson for an explanation and will publish correspondence in due course, in line with our policy of transparency.”
Interestingly, a similar scenario is being played out on the other side of the Atlantic, in the USA. Johnson and Trump, both blonde New Yorkers (Johnson was born in New York) and populist leaders, have been accused of lying. Most political analysts find clear parallels between the two. Both are flamboyant, flouting rules and ready to shout witch-hunt when things don’t go their way, yet find great support within their parties. But while Trump faces federal criminal charges, Johnson was found to be lying to Parliament.
Both Johnson and Trump, ideologically pliable politicians, are part of the global explosion of populism to lead their respective countries before falling from power. But both now seem to be going on different paths reflecting the varying political systems in their respective nations. Both men want to return to power. But while Trump has a clear road ahead of him – being the front-runner for his party’s 2024 presidential nomination, Johnson has no such thing ahead of him.
Unlike the American presidential system, in the British parliamentary system, prime ministers are selected because they are leaders of the party that wins the majority in the House of Commons. Interestingly, both men were cosmopolitan and liberal-minded but transitioned to the right to win elections.
For instance, Trump supported gay and abortion rights before entering the political fray but ended up appointing judges that overturned abortion rights. Similarly, Johnson known for his pro-European stance embraced Brexit to win at the ballot. It may be an accident of timing, but the parallels are hard to avoid. In the past weeks these two popular, larger-than-life political figures have been vehemently denouncing the system on both sides of the Atlantic, which once enabled them to power but now want to eject them.
Like most right-wing populist leaders both Johnson and Trump are effective communicators who could channel the votes. But both have broken and fractured their parties. Can the two discredited leaders still make a comeback?
(Nabanita Sircar is a senior journalist based in London. She tweets at @sircarnabanita. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)