What did he know and when did he know it?
How little the key question for political leaders has changed in nearly 50 years. This question dogged Richard Nixon after Watergate in 1972 and finally brought him down. He now follows Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom. Nixon was shot by a single tape recording in June 1972, during which he was involved in a silent money affair for the Watergate burglars.
Johnson’s problem is the party, and more seriously, the lies that followed. After slowly responding to the pandemic in Britain, Johnson reluctantly ordered lockdown measures. But stories quickly emerged of a raucous party on May 20, 2021, at No 10 Downing Street. The Prime Minister, having buttoned up his country due to the pandemic, partied hard, without a mask, after initially lying about it.
In the UK, if you’re caught lying, you don’t just respond to the press. First come several raucous Question Time sessions on the floor of the House of Commons, which is historically neither buttoned nor polished. Johnson repeatedly apologized for his lies, but that didn’t fix anything. Now he could lose his job in a way virtually impossible in the United States. He could be demoted by his own Tory party, otherwise fearing the decision over Johnson in the next general election in 2024. (There is no regular election day, but one must be called at least every five years) .
Imagine that in the darkest days of Donald Trump’s presidential term, some members of his own party decided to impeach him. They would call an informal “vote of no confidence” among party members, and Trump would then be traded for a replacement Republican.
This is the process in the UK – with the consent of the Queen, who is usually quite politically connected; his office is just a few steps from 10 Downing Street.
But a curious wrinkle has developed in London wearing dark shades. Scotland Yard has announced its own investigation to see if the laws have been broken. To protect potential state secrets, a single official decides what to delete, at the request of Downing Street. Nobody talks much about the delay on possible state secrets.
As the festivities got underway, Johnson quickly saw his balloon deflate. Always known as at least one colorful jester, Johnson was educated at Oxford. He was first elected to Parliament in 2001, although he took a few years off to become Mayor of London. But the sight of a political party changing direction while in office is not uncommon in London. Predecessor Theresa May allowed the Tories to choose Johnson to replace her in 2019. But the party only has 43% of parliament, so it governs by coalition. Beyond that, voters could kick out the ‘Tories’ at the next general election, even if the opposition Labor party isn’t riding any popular wave.
Johnson maintained that he believed the May 2020 party in question — one of several — was a work affair. But that became dubious as there were 100 guests requiring large amounts of alcohol.
Life has gotten serious in the UK capital as Johnson runs out of laughs.
No one in the UK is positioned for a Trump-inspired loyalty pledge. The royal family in the UK has been in place for a long time. Voters there do not vote directly for the prime minister; he is the leader of the majority party. The party can change leaders once the laughter subsides – or it can wait until the next election, when the details of Johnson’s party could produce a verdict.
The Queen last openly listened to the advice of a Prime Minister in 1997, when she was invited by Tony Blair to return to London following the death of Princess Diana.
Now she may have to listen to the defendant himself in Mr. Johnson. If he doesn’t plead his own case, he will still have to pay a courtesy call. He will ask to form a new government, or explain his departure to a monarch. She probably won’t laugh out loud.
The writer ([email protected]) is one of the founders of the Aspen Daily News and his column appears here on Sundays.