Uncertainty surrounding Johnson’s future having a corrosive effect

London Letter: Many Conservatives at Westminster feel PM’s early departure is inevitable

Four days after he suggested that Keir Starmer was responsible as director of public prosecutions for failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile and 24 hours after he doubled down on the smear, Boris Johnson withdrew it on Thursday.

“I want to be very clear about this because a lot of people have got very hot under the collar, and I understand why. Let’s be absolutely clear, I’m talking not about the leader of the opposition’s personal record when he was DPP and I totally understand that he had nothing to do personally with those decisions,” he said.

Among those getting hot under the collar were Munira Mirza, head of policy at Downing Street and one of Johnson's closest advisers for the past 14 years, from his days as London mayor. A former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, which notoriously denied the genocide of Muslims in Bosnia, Munira is not notably squeamish in the face of falsehood but the prime minister's Savile smear was too much even for her.

"I believe it was wrong for you to imply this week that Keir Starmer was personally responsible for allowing Jimmy Savile to escape justice. There was no fair or reasonable basis for that assertion. This was not the usual cut and thrust of politics; it was an inappropriate and partisan reference to a horrendous case of child sex abuse. You tried to clarify your position today but, despite my urging, you did not apologise for the misleading impression you gave," she wrote to Johnson in her resignation letter on Thursday afternoon.

Former Conservative minister Andrew Mitchell, who called for Johnson's resignation this week, compared the effect of the scandals surrounding the prime minister to battery acid "corroding the fabric" of the party.

Weakness

The prime minister’s weakness and the uncertainty surrounding his future is having a corrosive effect on policy issues too, including the Northern Ireland protocol.

Downing Street was blindsided by the DUP over Edwin Poots's instruction to halt sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks required by the protocol. Johnson's spokesman said he wanted the checks to continue to be carried out, but in the House of Commons later agriculture secretary George Eustice said it was a matter for the Northern Ireland executive.

Meanwhile, foreign secretary Liz Truss may be aiming for an interim deal with the EU over the protocol by the end of March, but the political turbulence at Westminster makes that less likely. Brussels fears that Truss's leadership ambitions mean she will not risk alienating the dwindling bunch of Brexit ultras on the Conservative backbenches, and that Johnson is in any case too weak to make the necessary compromises.

Johnson appears to have been surprised by the backlash following his Savile smear about Starmer, and some of his ministers, including Dominic Raab and James Cleverly, were happy to defend his remarks, even if they were unwilling to repeat them outside parliament.

In a speech about truth in politics on Thursday, Starmer described what he saw as the method behind Johnson’s approach to standards in public office.

“It is often said that the prime minister doesn’t believe the rules apply to him. That he has a sense of entitlement which transcends the normal rules of politics. I think it is considerably worse than that,” he said.

“It isn’t that the prime minister thinks the rules don’t apply. He absolutely knows that they do. His strategy is to devalue the rules so they don’t matter to anyone anymore. So that politics becomes contaminated. Cynicism and alienation replace confidence and trust.

Disillusion

“So that the taunt ‘politicians are just in it for themselves’ becomes accepted wisdom. It is a strategy to sow disillusion; to convince people that things can’t get better; government can’t improve people’s lives; progress isn’t possible because politics doesn’t work.”

The drip, drip of resignations and calls from his MPs for Johnson to go has persuaded many Conservatives at Westminster that his early departure is inevitable, possibly after the Metropolitan Police investigation into the Downing Street parties is complete or after May’s local elections.

Electing a new leader will take only a few weeks but restoring the fabric of their party and of Britain’s political culture will be a much longer project, with no guarantee of success.

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