Donald Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the storming of the US Congress. There was “no question about it”. So said Mitch McConnell, the senior Senate Republican just minutes after he voted to acquit the former president in his impeachment trial for that very act.
Three weeks after offering a similar view, Kevin McCarthy, the senior House Republican, flew to Mar-a-Lago to pay homage to Trump. The acquittal left the ex-president free to stand again, retain his grip on the party and perpetuate the lie of a stolen election. In reality, the Republican party surrendered its principles to Trumpism long before that final shocking moment, averting its gaze from first small and then larger outrages — because he was winning and because they feared his base. The huge crisis did not come out of the blue. It was the culmination of many events that normalised a culture of rule-breaking.
It would be absurd to compare Trump’s crimes to Boris Johnson’s lockdown breaches. The UK prime minister has not fomented insurrection or attempted to rig an election, though he did unlawfully suspended parliament over Brexit. His misdeeds are mostly offences of self-gratification. But there is a warning to Britain’s ruling Conservative party in the path trodden by their political soulmates across the Atlantic. Once you surrender your commitment to core values, it is hard to hold on to your party.
So, as Tories prevaricate over how to respond to the prime minister’s fine for attending a Downing Street party in pandemic lockdown — and it may not be the last — the question they must ask is how many blind eyes they can turn before their party, too, is lost?
Let us be clear, contrary to Johnson’s Tuesday night apology, his breach of lockdown rules — the most important law in the UK at that time — was no isolated or momentary lapse. There have been multiple incidents. When details emerged last year he did not immediately apologise. He denied, dissembled and blamed others for his mistakes.
The tone was set from the top. While the nation was isolating at home, ordered to allow loved ones to die or mourn the dead alone, Johnson, his Downing Street operation and even his health secretary were blithely ignoring the laws they imposed on others. His chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has also now paid a price for proximity to those with contempt for the rules.
And this is only part of the story. Johnson also flouted rules over the secret loan to fund the decoration of his Downing Street flat. He overruled both the Lords Appointments Commission and the security services to hand peerages to political pals. When Owen Paterson broke the ban on paid advocacy, Johnson tried to change the rules to get the former cabinet minister off the hook.
Faced with all this, Johnson’s apologists shrug their shoulders, resort to half-truths or dismiss opponents as Remainers. The rights and wrongs no longer count. The only issue — as in the US — is whose team you are on and whether you can bluff it out. Think also of the threat to breach a treaty or more recent efforts to curb the freedom of the independent Electoral Commission. Rules are broken; checks weakened; excuses made.
This virus has already infected the wider party. Conservatives are meant to stand for the rule of law above all. Yet no one in cabinet has broken ranks. MPs defend him with supine “he’s delivering for Britain” tweets. Of course, the parallel with the US is not exact. But one need not envisage anything as extreme as the storming of Congress to glean a warning. Once the currents of political expediency persuade you to turn a blind eye to rule-breaking, you are easily carried further from your core values than you intended. And there are Tories whose political instincts are far more dangerous that Johnson’s.
The proximity of May’s local elections, the crisis in Ukraine — over which Johnson deserves plaudits — and the lack of an obvious successor now that Sunak is damaged may delay action against him. But Conservative MPs have to ask themselves: what do they now stand for? Is it still the rule of law, that ministers must not mislead parliament and that legislators must abide by laws they impose on others? Or is it a politics in which no principle is inviolate as long as you can get away with it?
Allies try to argue these are only small crimes. That is how it always starts, telling yourself it is only a silly little law or a minor convention. But this is an existential as well as a moral question. Eventually, you must draw a line or lose everything you thought you stood for. And this, in any case, is not a small matter; it goes to the core of trust in government.
There are enough good Tory MPs who know this. They also know Johnson’s offences are so shocking to voters that the wider party may feel unable to ignore them indefinitely. Many are stalling until the Ukraine crisis cools. Others tell themselves they are waiting for the right moment or that Johnson is now chastened. Republicans once told themselves the same thing. But there is never a right moment, only the moment you choose.
Johnson’s contempt for the rules is dragging down his party and, more important, faith in the system. Only opposition weakness keeps the Tories afloat. His chancellor and his staff are already tainted. Eventually his party will be too. There may be a cost for bringing Johnson down but ultimately there will be a higher one for failing to do so.