How Boris Johnson's toxic legacy has set the tone for Rishi Sunak's catalogue of scandals – Ian Swanson
Prime Minister fails in aim to be different
Rishi Sunak’s main aim when he took over at Number Ten was to show he was different from Liz Truss and Boris Johnson: no more mad, unfunded tax cuts; no more dodgy conduct followed by cover-ups. He would steady the ship and restore “integrity” to government.
He managed to reverse most of Liz Truss’s economic measures, but the sleaze and scandal of the Johnson era is alive and kicking. Sunday’s sacking of Nadhim Zahawi as Tory party chairman for breaking the ministerial code over his tax affairs comes after criticism of Suella Braverman’s appointment as Home Secretary when she had left the post just six days earlier over a security breach and the sacking of Gavin Williamson over bullying; and as an investigation is underway into bullying allegations against deputy prime minister Dominic Raab.
All this, just 100 days into Mr Sunak’s premiership, calls into question the Prime Minister’s judgement and destroys any hope he had of being seen as the Conservatives’ Mr Clean. That was, perhaps, already unrealistic in view of the revelation last year of his wife Akshata Murthy’s non-dom tax status and his own fine over Partygate – now followed by another for not wearing his seatbelt while being filmed for a video in a moving car.
But the succession of scandals also points back to that Johnson era which seems so long ago but has left a toxic legacy which is all too present. Johnson’s three years as Prime Minister changed people’s perception of politics and public life. His unrepentant rule-breaking and disregard for the decencies of normal political conduct lowered standards and expectations.
The partying in Downing Street while the nation was in lockdown, the billions of pounds worth of Covid contracts handed out to cronies, the illegal proroguing of parliament and the peerage for newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev, despite MI5's concerns, all showed a reckless readiness to abuse power. Then there was Johnson’s refusal to sack Dominic Cummings over his rule-breaking trip to Durham and later his refusal to accept the finding that the then Home Secretary Priti Patel was guilty of bullying civil servants, with the Owellian result that instead of Priti Patel being sacked it was the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser who resigned. And finally, the one that turned his own MPs against him, the appointment of Tory MP Chris Pincher as deputy chief whip despite knowing about allegations of sexual assault.
Johnson normalised scandal so that it lost some of its power to shock. His record has had a corrosive effect, undermining trust and confidence not just in individual politicians but in the whole system. And it has probably set the tone for a whole generation of politicians. One commentator compared it to long Covid, saying we were also suffering from “long Johnson – the chronic, recurrent debilitation of government by a pathogen that still circulates in the ruling party long after the original infection has been treated”.
And we know there is more to come. There’s an investigation into the appointment of BBC chairman Richard Sharp soon after he helped arrange an £800,000 loan for Johnson; the Commons privileges committee will soon start its probe into whether Johnson lied to parliament over Partygate; and we still await his resignation honours list, said to feature more than 100 names.