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UK Crisis: Can British Democracy Recover From Boris’s Tainted Legacy?

Boris Johnson really did seem to believe that the rules of politics and public life didn’t apply to him.

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Boris Johnson once privately remarked that it would take a flame-thrower to force him out of Downing Street. And it almost came to that. But the embattled UK Prime Minister has now finally resigned. "It is clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative party that there should be a new leader of that party, and therefore a new prime minister," Johnson said outside 10 Downing Street, adding that he would stay on as Prime Minister until a replacement is found.

For the past 24 hours, 10 Downing Street had been a bunker – with an embattled Prime Minister refusing to take the advice of cabinet colleagues that his time was up and that he must resign.

It has been the most intense political drama, and psycho-drama, in modern Britain. For a time it seemed that Johnson – arguing that his 2019 election victory was a personal mandate – would cling to office as his government quite literally fell apart. There was talk that he might ‘do a Trump’ and try to cleave to power in defiance of political and constitutional norms.

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The Central Issue With Boris Was Integrity

Since Tuesday evening, five cabinet ministers resigned, one of them within two days of being appointed; another was sacked; two more, while refusing to resign, publicly called on their boss to go; several others had privately told the Prime Minister that he had to step down. More than 50 junior ministers and those in the lower ranks of government also resigned. The ministerial ranks, who do much of the heavy-lifting of running the country, were hollowed out.

The central issue is integrity. This week, Boris Johnson was caught out in another lie – he had insisted that he was unaware of specific allegations of sexual misconduct against a Conservative MP before giving him a government job. It soon became clear that was not true. For many in government, this was the final straw. They could no longer support a political leader who was so persistently dishonest.

It was part of a pattern. Boris Johnson really did seem to believe that the rules of politics and public life didn’t apply to him.

In the words of Max Hastings, a right-wing commentator and once Boris’s boss, writing in Thursday’s Times: “[Boris Johnson] is a stranger to truth who has sooner or later betrayed every man, woman and cause with which he associates.”

The extraordinary political events of the past couple of days – and particularly the unsavoury sight of a Prime Minister desperately, and humiliatingly, clinging to power when he had clearly lost the confidence of his party – have damaged Britain’s democracy. They have shaken the political system and made some observers wonder whether Britain’s system of an unwritten constitution – where politics works according to convention and an assumption that politicians will behave well – remains fit for purpose.

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Finding Someone With a Clean Record

The Conservative Party will now elect a new leader – that may take a few weeks – who will then become Britain’s next Prime Minister. The opposition Labour Party is demanding a general election, but that’s not the way Britain’s political system works. The Conservatives continue to have an ample majority in Parliament. So, what we will see in the next few days or weeks is a change of Prime Minister, not a change of governing party.

Who will be the new Conservative leader and Prime Minister? Rishi Sunak wielded the dagger on Tuesday evening when he resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer (in essence, Finance Minister), and so unleashed the political maelstrom that has ended Boris Johnson’s political career. In his stiletto-like resignation letter, Sunak wrote: “the public rightly expect the government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously ... I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning’.

Although Rishi Sunak’s political standing has been under a cloud of late, he is again being talked about as a potential successor to Boris Johnson. By the end of the summer, Britain could have a ‘desi’ Prime Minister.

But there is no clear front-runner. Some Conservatives MPs believe all those who served in Boris Johnson’s cabinet are diminished by their complicity in a series of political scandals. There’s talk of finding someone young and untainted for the top job. That’s for the days and weeks ahead.

But for the moment, most Conservatives – and indeed most members of the public – are simply relieved that the dismal, turbulent premiership of Boris Johnson is drawing, painfully, to a close.

(Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC India correspondent. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Britain   United Kingdom   Boris Johnson 

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