Boris Johnson, Brexit and the Conservative Party: End of a Love Story?

Crossroads Europe |

A conversation with Luca Augé: For our podcast by UACES, the University Association for European Studies, we welcome Luca Augé, Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for Research on the English-Speaking World at Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, in Paris.

The conversation is based on research presented at the Graduate Forum conference, ‘Rebuilding Europe after a Decade of Crisis‘ which took place at IBEI on 8-9 June 2023. The conference was supported by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The European Commission’s support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents, which reflect the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

 

Transcript of the interview is as follows:

 

 

On 15 June 2023, the House of Commons Privileges Committee found that former Prime Minister Boris Johnson “deliberately misled the House” in regards to the so-called partygate scandals. What happened exactly and why does this matter?

 

The events of the last few days are actually part of a longer and older unfolding political drama. Since 2021, British media have uncovered around 15 parties that were attended by members of the Conservative government including then Prime Minister Boris Johnson during the different Covid-19 lockdowns in the UK. This was in breach with the public health regulations at the time and several individuals like Johnson himself were fined for being present at these parties.

As the public outcry at the time was widespread, a parliamentary inquiry was set up in order to look at the claims made by Johnson before MPs that he believed these parties to be lawful. After months of investigation, the final report was of the inquiry was published on 15 June 2023 and found that indeed Johnson had misled Parliament by making inaccurate claims. This matters as a former Prime Minister and elected Member of Parliament of the governing Conservative Party is found by a cross-party Committee to have lied to Parliament. It has clearly wide-ranging political and democratic consequences.

 

 

How did Johnson, the Conservative Party and the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak react?

 

This is where things get complicated. Johnson could have accepted the findings of the report and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak could have suspended Johnson or asked his party to endorse the findings of the report, but none of this happened.

Even before the report was published, Johnson announced his resignation as Member of Parliament and called in a statement the inquiry a “kangaroo court”. He even initially pushed his remaining allies to vote against the report before calling it off.

The conclusions of the report also impacted directly the Conservative Party. Two Johnson allies resigned as MPs triggering potentially dangerous by-elections for the party. Several others reacted in support of Johnson accusing instead the Committee itself. When Parliament voted on the report on 20 June, only 7 Conservative MPs officially voted against the report, but 224 Conservative MPs so around a two thirds of the party didn’t participate.

This stance is interestingly reflected by the Conservative Party leader and current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Sunak also didn’t participate in the vote and didn’t publicly express any opinion on the matter. Such a move might be surprising for someone who promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” on the very day he became Prime Minister and who could have used the report to assert this as one of his priorities. Instead, his stance can be understood as an attempt to calm things down within the Conservative Party by not frontally discrediting Johnson.

 

 

Sunak was Johnson’s Chancellor of the Exchequer from 2020 to 2022 and has tried to depart from Johnson’s legacy in government since becoming Prime Minister. Where does this leave the government and the UK in terms of policy-making?

 

You’re right. Sunak immediately tried to open a new era of government away from the more turbulent Johnson Premiership and the much shorter Truss Premiership. Already in terms of character, Sunak is more pragmatic and cautious than Johnson. In terms of governance, Sunak also worked upon closing some of the ongoing issues than started under Johnson. He signed the Windsor Agreement that stabilised the previously rather tense relationship with the European Union and has trusted Hunt as Chancellor to support the struggling British economy.

Under Sunak, the UK government is more subtle than under his predecessors. However, the Conservative Party on which he relies to govern continues to unfold in intra-party divisions and tensions. This will be problematic in the wake of the upcoming General Election scheduled for within the next 18 months and is already increasing the probability of the Conservative Party being pushed into the opposition.

 

 

You haven’t mentioned Brexit which was completed more than 2 years ago. With Johnson’s resignation and Sunak’s more pragmatic style does Brexit still play a role in British politics?

 

As shown since the 2016 referendum, Brexit still plays role in British politics and especially within the Conservative Party. In his resignation statement, Johnson said that there was supposedly “a witch hunt under way, to take revenge for Brexit and ultimately to reverse the 2016 referendum result” and called upon Sunak to “show how we are making the most of Brexit”. For Johnson and his allies, Brexit continues to be a rallying issue that structures their approach of political and institutional dynamics. Sunak, even if he signed the Windsor Agreement and went back on his decision to massively revoke retained EU law,  has no plans to question the Brexit mantra that dominates the Conservative Party since 2016.

Johnson’s resignation and the debate around the inquiry report showed again how divided the Conservative Party is. It also interestingly showed how even if Johnson is personally sidelined, his influence continues to a certain extent over parts of the party and his realisation of Brexit remains a unchangeable status quo for the Conservative Party even under more pragmatic Prime Ministers like Sunak. The question, of course, is how much of this will hold while the party is losing ground and might join the opposition benches.

 

Let’s see indeed how things unfold in British politics until the next General Election in 2024. Many thanks, Luca, for this update on British politics and the Conservative Party. I recall you are a PhD candidate at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris. And I trust we keep in touch. Thank you.