Writer Patrick Gaffey explains why Boris Johnson’s resignation will mean nothing if the system that allows his behaviour is not changed.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces perhaps his biggest threat since taking power, after admitting to attending an illegal party in May 2020, ignoring his government’s lockdown regulations on a day when 103 British people died of Covid-19. The shameless elitism, flaunted in the face of those who suffered tragedy throughout the pandemic, has led to calls for him to resign. Labour leader Keir Starmer said: “The only question is: will the British public kick him out, will his party kick him out, or will he do the decent thing and resign?” A number of figures within the Conservative Party, such as Scottish leader Douglas Ross, have joined the chorus.
For those of us who have adhered to Covid-19 regulations, this event was unacceptable, and a resignation from Johnson should be welcomed. However, calls from the opposition for the Prime Minister to leave office, without any long-term plans afterwards, are weak and fatalistic. Johnson’s resignation may offer catharsis to the millions whose lives he has damaged, but it would do nothing to combat the Party and system which brought him to power in the first place. In the best-case scenario of Starmer’s Labour and the Tory rebels, Johnson would simply step aside and allow someone else from the cesspit of corruption that is the Conservative Party to take over.
A focus on powerful individuals over all-powerful systems will not and can not improve this situation. The sentiment behind calls for Johnson to resign is similar to that which drove the failed attempt to impeach American president Donald Trump in early 2020. If this manoeuvre had succeeded, Trump’s Vice President and Cabinet would have remained intact, continuing to impose exactly the same policies as he would have. As veteran journalist Chris Hedges wrote at the time: “Impeachment is about cosmetics. It is about replacing the public face of empire with a political mandarin […] who will carry out the same suicidal policies with appropriate regal decorum.”
“The sentiment behind calls for Johnson to resign is similar to that which drove the failed attempt to impeach American president Donald Trump in early 2020.”
Similarly, a Johnson resignation alone would offer nothing in the way of systematic change. Relying on the morality of the Conservative Party is a fool’s errand, made obvious by some of the contemptible rogues preparing to oust their leader. Johnny Mercer, the Conservative MP and former Secretary of State for Veterans, received support from some Johnson opponents when he chastised the party as a “humiliating” event which “does not reflect the majority of my colleagues”. He has positioned himself as a moral compass for the Party, guiding it away from corrupt elitism towards the light.
However, Mercer has some of the most ethically reprehensible views within electoral politics, as anyone with an interest in Ireland knows. He has consistently given his backing and protection to soldiers who massacred innocent men, women, and children on the streets of Ulster. When retired soldier Dennis Hutchings was put on trial for killing John Pat Cunningham, a disabled Tyrone man, Mercer flew to Belfast to support him. Mercer claims that he is simply showing support to veterans, strongly contested by Richard Rudkin, a soldier stationed in Derry and Belfast during the early years of the Troubles. He told me how critical he was of Mercer’s “view of the role played by the British army and treatment of the families fighting for Truth and Justice”. He is a figure just as entangled in imperialism and self-promotion as Johnson or any of his allies.
Johnson resigning would be a welcome gesture, but a meaningless one unless his party can be defeated electorally. The Conservative opportunists who oppose him today are the liars, frauds and war criminals of yesterday and tomorrow. If Starmer and the Tory rebels truly want to see change, the time is now to begin challenging and dismantling the systems which allowed these elitist attitudes to surge.