By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro*
When I first came to the UK in the 1980s — leaving behind my previous home in broken Lebanon and the wider Middle East, and all the sleaze, corruption and impunity that exist there — I recall how surprised I was to read and hear about MPs caught up in “cash for questions” scandals and “brown envelopes” for politicians.
Yes, where human beings are concerned, with public and not-so-public office comes the temptation for sleaze, corruption and conflict of interests. But it is left to the state and watchdog institutions to redress the imbalances whenever such incidents occur, and those caught in such scandals often pay dearly in terms of damage to their careers and public standing, and the standing of their political parties in general.
Despite efforts in the UK over the past three decades to cleanse public life of corruption and sleaze, such issues are again dominating the media and political agenda under the Conservative government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
His appearance last week in front of the Liaison Committee in the House of Commons showed him to be a rather broken figure, giving vague answers and arguments that revealed either a cavalier, uncaring PM, considering the seriousness of the allegations leveled against him and his party, or a leader that has reached the end of the road and must therefore be on his way out.
Facing intensive questioning by senior MPs, Johnson admitted it had been “a total mistake” to put forward amendments to change standard rules that could have exonerated former Tory MP Owen Paterson.
“Do I regret that decision? I certainly do,” he told the committee.
One could say that Johnson might just be having a difficult few weeks, but his efforts to try to bend the rules to appoint a parliamentary ethics committee dominated by members of his party was not an isolated act. It was followed by his policy reversal on a high-speed rail development, greatly advertised as a means of “leveling-up” his election promise to invigorate the poorer areas of middle England that voted for him in the last election to give him an unexpected majority. Meanwhile his social care plans have fallen short of expectations and seem designed to favor rich pensioners over the majority who are less well off.
Johnson, according to many Tory politicians, has succeeded in increasingly uniting all sides of his party against him — along, to a large extent, many among the electorate that had been supportive of his populist style of government despite the evidence of cronyism and one set of rules for the ruling party and its supporters and another for the wider country.
One cannot write Johnson off yet, however, despite the long list of failures associated with his premiership, including the less than efficient handling of the pandemic and the troubled Brexit divorce from the EU. Even now, a number of issues with the latter remain unresolved, including the protocols governing trade relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland without introducing a hard border. Other issues include fishing rights and migration, two issues that threaten the UK’s relationship with ally and neighbor France.
It seems that the mask has slipped and voters are seeing the reality of a government that overpromised and underdelivered on basic election pledges, such as promises to build 40 hospitals by 2030, increase the size of the police force to underpin safety and security, improve education and assistance for poorer students, and, last but not least, fill the vacancies in an understaffed National Health Service.
All of this while the government has raised taxes by the highest levels in 30 years, allegedly to pay for pandemic costs, amid rising inflation and poor economic growth, with the combination of Brexit and the pandemic likely to leave a six-points dent in the UK’s gross domestic product for years to come.
Increasingly, one cannot help but notice how Johnson has reduced the UK from a complex international player — capable of punching above its weight, which traditionally linked the EU with Washington through the UK-US “special relationship,” while also keeping the Commonwealth alive — to a nation with a one-note leader. A leader who begged the world to believe that his “is not a corrupt country,” admitted domestically that he has “crashed the car in a ditch,” told the UN General Assembly that Kermit the Frog was wrong when he sang “It’s not easy being green,” stumbled in a speech this week at the Confederation of British Industry when he said to the audience “forgive me” after pausing, at a loss, for 40 seconds after losing his place in a speech he used to attack the civil service by alluding to its failure to open a theme park such as Peppa Pig World.
Many people once warmed to Boris and his boosterism, despite the hints of right-wing nationalism, his many blunders, ill-thought-out policies and poorly executed leadership. Now many in Britain see him as lacking “the directional stability of a broken shopping trolley” (a statement he himself allegedly once used to describe his attitude to Brexit).
In countries that lack the liberal democratic history of the UK, the leadership shortcomings of Boris Johnson and his government could have been just business as usual for a band of boys and girls who managed to gain power and or usurped it.
In Britain, however, it is common for those who elect a leader to serve them to question that leader’s record if they stray from their promises or fail to deliver on them. Winston Churchill once called on the Tories to protect and support and stand by their leader to the end, but added that if “he is no good, he must be pole-axed.”
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years of experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.