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This was supposed to be Boris Johnson’s global moment, when the host leader of the COP26 climate summit declared “Britain is back” on the world stage after kicking the European Union to the curb. But, instead of being the global leader in climate change, Boris Johnson finds himself embroiled in a Sleazegate scandal as his public approval ratings plummet to their lowest levels ever.
Conservative lawmakers were corralled, the British press widely reported, into backing a plan last week to avoid a 30-day suspension for Paterson by creating a committee tasked with reviewing the system governing influence peddling. Johnson’s government was forced to abandon the plan after a strong public backlash. Paterson, who insists that his lobbying activities were unfairly investigated by the British press
, has since resigned from his seat in Parliament.
But particularly after a bruising session of Parliament on Monday that the prime minister did not attend, it’s been a tough few days for Johnson as accusations have flied in the British press of so-called “sleaze” — a catchall word on the other side of the Atlantic for official misconduct. In a move that appeared aimed at deflecting the growing scandal, he plans to return to the climate summit in Glasgow, Scotland, on Wednesday for what a No. 10 spokesman described as an attempt to “encourage ambitious action” on climate change in the final days of negotiations.
Johnson’s opponents accused him of dodging responsibility. “He led his party through the sewers and the stench lingers,” opposition Labour Party leader Keir Starmer railed in Parliament on Monday. He has hidden away.” “This week, he was able to get clean and apologize for his actions to the country. But instead of stepping up, he has hidden away.”
For the attention-seeking Johnson, who once deadpanned “get me a ladder” after getting stuck on a zip line during a political stunt, it was not supposed to be this way. COP26 was something of a coming-out party for a Britain newly decoupled from the E.U. According to one “insider”, Johnson believed it “marvelous” that a “big event” was being held so quickly after Brexit.
For Johnson, the recriminations over accountability in recent days speaks to broader criticism of how his Conservatives have leveraged their overwhelming victory in 2019 to undermine institutional checks and balances. His government is pushing an elections bill that would increase political control of the Electoral Commission, an independent watchdog currently investigating the funding for the refurbishment of the Downing Street apartment the prime minister shares with his wife.
It’s tempting, if a tad lazy, to view Johnson — who is also known for his entertainment value — through the transatlantic prism of the Trump Republicans. In some important ways, Johnson and his closest ministers have echoed Trumpian tactics meant to bend the rules of democracy and fan the fires of the culture wars. British conservatism is a completely different animal.
For one, Conservative lawmakers in Britain — spurred by angry constituents — appear to be pushing back against their leaders for insisting on party loyalty for what some of them now confess was an immoral attempt to dodge accountability in the Paterson case. “It was moronically stupid,” one unnamed Conservative MP told the BBC.
The well-known British Conservative William Hague famously said his party was like “an absolute monarchy tempered by regicide” — a reference to how the Conservative rank and file remain firmly loyal, until they don’t, as Margaret Thatcher learned in 1990. Despite his declining approval ratings Johnson doesn’t seem to be in immediate danger of losing the job. Few Conservatives are eager to vote in flash elections, which could put their jobs at risk.
Yet, at the very least, the roiling sleaze scandal has tarnished what should have been Johnson’s moment, crystallizing criticism about his flexible commitment to the rule of law.
“For him, all this couldn’t have come at a worst time,” Tony Travers, a British politics expert at the London School of Economics, told me this week.