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Democracy strikes back: Andrei Ostalsky on why the UK finally got rid of its “Teflon” prime minister

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When Boris Johnson was asked in September 2018 what he considered the biggest mistake of his political career, he replied, “When I became foreign secretary, I thought there was no objective reason to be so hostile to Russia.” Indeed, as head of the British Foreign Office, he actively campaigned for a “reset” and traveled to Moscow and met with Putin. And that after the Litvinenko murder in London, the attack on Georgia, the armed intervention in Syria by a brutal dictatorship, the annexation of Crimea, and the destruction of the MH17 passenger plane. And after all this, Johnson insisted that Putin could be appeased, that it was necessary to establish friendly relations with him. In December 2017, he became the first British minister to visit Moscow in five years. And it seems that only after the monstrous story of the Skripal assassination attempt in Salisbury the following March did Johnson finally end his clumsy attempts to “normalize” relations with the Kremlin. “I wanted to engage with Putin and Sergey Lavrov to see if… there were areas where we needed to engage. Then it just became clearer and clearer to me that that was a fool’s errand.”, - he later admitted.

Since February 2022, all of Johnson's actions on Ukraine can be considered an active penance for the colossal mistake. Even the prime minister's fiercest opponents and critics admit that he really set an example for the entire West by doing everything possible to help Ukraine stand up and repel Putin's aggression. In difficult times for itself, Britain nevertheless spent and continues to spend billions of pounds on military and economic aid to Kyiv. There’s a reason that streets in Ukraine are already being renamed after Johnson, and that he is undoubtedly the most popular Western leader in Ukraine. And the country is worried about his resignation - doesn't that mean the support will start to wane? It is probably no coincidence that Moscow is so excited about his downfall, is it?

Watching Johnson on the streets of Kiev, it's impossible not to recall the “two-faced Janus.” It is as if two different people live in Johnson. One, from Kyiv, has not made a single false step, his every word sounds perfectly appropriate and seems absolutely sincere, even his face looks special, enlightened. And when he talks at home about the need to fully support the Ukrainians, and that Putin's war threatens all of Europe and the world order, it is impossible not to believe him. At such moments, he does resemble his idol, Winston Churchill, who rallied the West and the anti-Hitler coalition during the war and worked tirelessly and heroically to defeat the Nazis.

But whenever Johnson turns to domestic policy matters, there is an overwhelming sense of mendacity and hypocrisy. Sometimes it even seems he doesn't really believe what he's saying. One theory is that Boris really wanted to be Prime Minister, but that he had to pretend to be a rabid Brexiteer, a nationalist and even a bit xenophobic to be able to do achieve that goal under the circumstances. And he was clever enough to pull it off, he was credible, and the Brexit wave carried him to the top.

But you can't help it: constant pretense dries up the soul and invariably gives itself away. A different, straightforward attitude towards the Prime Minister is more common in Britain today, with which the majority seems to go along: Johnson is an opportunist, an amoral man, without any principles whatsoever, ready to preach liberalism, extreme right-wing populism, fascism or whatnot - for the sake of power. As long as it was necessary to make Brexit happen, the ruling party needed such an energetic, utterly confident, charming and cheerful opportunist leader, and they turned a blind eye to his shortcomings. But in more “normal” times, it has become impossible to ignore them.

Many believe that Johnson is ready to preach liberalism, fascism or whatnot for the sake of power

Meanwhile, Johnson has long had a reputation of an unabashed liar. And not even a sophisticated one - in his self-confidence he believed there was no need to make a special effort, he could still get away with it. Early in his career, when he worked as a journalist, he was fired for falsification. His former boss Max Hastings, then head of the Daily Telegraph, called for him to be kept out of 10 Downing Street, published a long piece titled “Boris Johnson is not fit to be prime minister.”

One of the most respected Conservative leaders, Michael Howard, once expelled him from the shadow government with shame for trying to deceive the party leadership about the racy circumstances of his private life. He had blithely denied having an extramarital affair that ended in an abortion, but it was soon confirmed.

Since assuming the premiership, he has been regularly caught outright lying or distorting the facts on a variety of occasions. Information emerged about a not entirely transparent method of financing repairs in his apartment, and Johnson tried to cover his tracks. In December 2018, he was ordered to apologize for failing to declare income of more than £50,000 on time. And in April 2019, he was 11 months late in registering his 20% interest in a Somerset real estate. And this is by no means a complete list of his transgressions. These are all small things, but when there are too many of them, quantity inevitably turns into quality and the reputation begins to burst at the seams.

As Prime Minister, Johnson not only defended the corrupt, but even tried, though unsuccessfully, to change parliamentary procedure to prevent the punishment of one of the seriously offenders among the MPs. Granted, he may be a son of a bitch, but he is my, Johnson’s, son of a bitch! That means that even serious offenses should be forgiven. There have been many such incidents, but what broke the tide was what happened to Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip in the House of Commons, whom Johnson was nominating for increasingly responsible positions.

He was accused of sexual harassment, with the use of his official position. The prime minister initially whitewashed him, saying that the accusations were just unsubstantiated rumors. Then, when it became clear that the grounds for the accusations were quite serious, he announced that he himself had nothing to do with it, had not been aware of it, and that his negligent subordinates had not informed the leader. But then it turned out to be a lie: there was a letter from the Foreign Office where Pincher used to work under Johnson, and its author confirmed that he had personally reported to Johnson about a previous similar incident when the lover of young men molested young employees while drunk. In general, he had quite a reputation in the Parliament, apparently, and those two cases were not the only ones. So, it was the same story all over again - he may be a scoundrel, but he is one of us! And when many people today write on social media they see a “potential Putin” in Johnson they are referring to the two important similarities: firstly, the habit of unabashed and regular lies and, secondly, life according to the principle “ our own people are above the law” (“our own people get everything and everybody else gets the law”). Some point to a third commonality: both Johnson and Putin are prepared to do anything in order to remain in power.

The scandal that erupted in connection with a party in the prime minister's residence at a time when partying was expressly forbidden by the law during the quarantine cannot be called trivial at all. That is, at the behest of the government, people all over the country were punished for violating the ban on getting together, relatives were not even allowed to say goodbye to patients dying in hospitals. Meanwhile, Johnson and his entourage were enjoying themselves to the fullest. But again, it was not only and not so much his disregard of the law and the rules that was blamed on him, but the lies - first he denied everything, then grudgingly admitted to partial and allegedly involuntary violations. But he did not reveal the whole truth. After that, the reaction in society was so fierce that the rating of the Conservative Party plummeted, the unrest in the party ranks intensified, and finally it came to a vote of confidence in Johnson as the leader of the ruling party. That time he survived, the majority of 211 supported him, but as many as , 148 Conservative MPs voted to throw him out of the leadership position.

Against such a background, a new scandal erupted, with the appointment of Pincher and the leader’s obvious public lie. This was the last straw, an actual, unprecedented uprising, the likes of which could never have been imagined. More than 50 ministers, deputy ministers and high-ranking party and government functionaries resigned in a matter of three days, and almost all the letters that are traditionally sent to the prime minister on such occasions contained a clear and stark message: we cannot work with an immoral liar any longer.

It was thought that Johnson was a Teflon PM, that everything was water off a duck's back for him, and that he would not leave under any circumstances, so strong was his irresistible thirst for power. And he was stubborn to the last moment: do whatever you want, but I will not leave. But when he practically ran out of ministers and no longer had anybody to work with, and a large group of his former close associates appeared in Downing Street with a categorical demand for his resignation, even such a man was forced to give up. In his farewell speech he declared himself a perfect prime minister, admitted no mistakes, did not apologize either directly or indirectly, and only insulted his party by calling it a “herd,” and when, he said, “the herd moves, it moves”, there is no stopping it.

As he said goodbye, Johnson declared himself a perfect prime minister, admitted no mistakes and did not apologize

I know a lot of people who say something like: “I adore Johnson, he's such a bright personality, such a speaker, such a wit, the soul of any intelligent company, a feast with him is a lot of fun, but as regards his premiership ... I do not think he is suitable for that”. He is indeed a highly educated, talented eccentric, a brilliant orator, and has a terrific, absurd sense of humor. He even couldn't resist quipping, in a tight circle, about the Pincher scandal: “Yes, yes, of course, I know: all perverts are for me.”

Finally, he made linguists busy again. Talking about how sad he was to give up “the best job in the world,” he said: “But them's the breaks.” The phrase, which flouts every imaginable and unimaginable rule of English grammar, could roughly be translated as: “that's how the things are.” Linguists explain that the expression comes from the slang of American billiard players, by this illiterate phrase they complained about how the balls fly apart after the “break” - the first strike on the pyramid. Something like the French “c'est la vie” - such is life, can't help it. But what is funny is, of course, how wild and deliberate the contrast is in the context of such a serious statement.

At the meeting of the “zombie cabinet” (as critics call the strange government team that stayed with Johnson until a new leader is elected, including the five who took part in the “coup”) he drove the audience almost to hysterical laughter. For example, he called himself a reincarnation of the Japanese officer Hiroo Onoda, who refused to surrender at the end of World War II and only came out of hiding in the Philippines jungles 29 years later. Johnson will definitely be missed in British politics. “He's a very charismatic person. He's a rock star and a major figure on the world stage,” the papers quoted one of his associates as saying.

But of the three achievements he listed in his farewell speech - Brexit, fighting Covid and supporting Ukraine - most agree only with the last one. There is a broad public and elite consensus on this, and it is highly unlikely that the course will change under a new leader. Not only that, but we can assume that it was the Ukraine policy that was saving Johnson for a while - many people, inside and outside the party, gave him credit for it. What ruined him, of course, was his lies, his narcissism and his arrogant view of those around him as fools who could easily be fooled. As the center-right Times wrote in its editorial, “Johnson walks away in disgrace, rejected by his own party for his continued dishonesty, breaking rules, and blatant disregard for the codes and conventions that underpin public life.”

The Ukraine policy was saving Johnson for a while

And the main conclusion is that this whole story is not about the strange plight of an individual, albeit an outstanding, original politician in his own way, but about the fate of British democracy. Johnson's political survival would have meant accepting a new normality in which outright lies and deceit would become something mundane, almost the main tool of governance – that would have been the lesson the future leaders would have inevitably drawn.

There are many of those who believe that it would have been “a road to Putinism,” a slippery slope on which it would have been hard to stop. Johnson's defeat, however, holds the opposite lesson: no matter how tightly the rope may be wound, the public and the establishment will not indefinitely tolerate a charlatan method of governance. That means that British democracy is not hopeless; it can still defend itself.

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