The Observer’s take on Boris Johnson’s unsustainable leadership | Observer Editorial


Last week it was confirmed that Boris Johnson broke laws designed to protect the public during a national emergency. The Prime Minister and Chancellor are among the group of people fined by the Metropolitan Police for attending unlawful gatherings in Downing Street on this occasion to celebrate his birthday. Johnson is expected to receive further fines in the coming weeks.

It should be untenable for him to stay in office. First, there is the substance of his torts. Members of the public have made huge sacrifices to comply with Covid restrictions during nationwide lockdowns. People have not been able to see sick loved ones, say goodbye in person one last time, or hold full-sized funerals. Yet the Prime Minister and his colleagues have found it acceptable to attend many parties on government property. It makes a mockery of those sacrifices, leaving people feeling not only angry but also guilty for not breaking the law to be with the dying rather than attending a birthday party.

Then there’s the Prime Minister’s handling of these revelations in recent months. On numerous occasions, he assured Parliament that no rule or law had been broken. The only person to quit in the scandal was her former spokesperson after a leaked video of her joking about a party; it is not even clear if she attended any herself. Meanwhile, Johnson simply brushed off his wrongdoing, with Downing Street sources insulting the intelligence of the public by comparing the fixed penalty notice to speeding fines.

It is unprecedented for a Prime Minister to be fined by the police for such serious breaches of the law. Every week he stays in power is another week that undermines public trust not only in the government, but in the entire political class. In our parliamentary democracy, Johnson’s immediate fate is in the hands of Conservative Party MPs, not the voters. Only these politicians have the power to kick him out of Downing Street in a vote of no confidence, but they seem highly unlikely to act.

And so Johnson is left free to undermine the prime ministership long after he should have resigned and introduce policies designed to dominate the headlines, whatever the consequences. The latest is the memorandum of understanding with Rwanda. This will pave the way for the government to forcibly deport people fleeing conflict and torture seeking refuge in the UK to Rwanda, in return for a significant financial contribution to the Rwandan government.

The Archbishop of Canterbury is right to condemn it in the strongest terms. One of the world’s richest countries is bribing one of the world’s poorest countries – with its own history of human rights abuses – to outsource our ethical and legal obligations to refugees. Britain receives far fewer asylum applications than France and Germany, and last year granted protection to 13,000 refugees, the equivalent of just 20 per parliamentary constituency. As a country, we should be doing more, not less, to provide a safe haven for people who have experienced appalling conflict and human rights abuses in countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Ukraine.

But according to the government’s plans, it would aim to deport at great expense those arriving in the UK through irregular routes – as many asylum seekers do – to Rwanda, where they would be forced to seek asylum. The government argues this would minimize the loss of life in the English Channel by discouraging people from crossing to the UK. Yet Australia’s policy of processing asylum seekers off the Pacific island of Nauru has not reduced levels of human trafficking. In fact, when Israel struck a deal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda between 2014 and 2017, many left Rwanda almost immediately and turned to smugglers to try and get back to Europe.

The absence of any evidence to support the government’s claim that it will reduce Channel crossings led the civil service to refuse to sign the policy on value for money grounds. This means Home Secretary Priti Patel had to issue a ministerial instruction in order to override them, only the second used by a Home Secretary in 30 years. It also remains to be seen whether this is a policy that would survive a challenge in court under international law.

Either way, this forced deportation program marks a new low for British refugee policy, already tainted by the inhumane policies of the Nationality and Borders Bill, the government’s failure to offer refuge to all Afghans who worked with British forces before their withdrawal; and desperation delays in processing visas for Ukrainian refugees. This would establish a principle that rich countries can shirk their obligations to refugees, which would undermine the very foundation of international law and the 1951 Refugee Convention.

Unless Tory MPs use their power to sack Johnson, this is what the country is doomed for until the next general election: a Prime Minister who flouted the law and misled Parliament by trying to hijack attention to its own lack of probity by pushing back ever further from policies that will temporarily make the headlines, regardless of the human cost. They should ask themselves if they are prepared to be complicit in the long-term damage Johnson is causing to their party, the political system and the country.


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