The struggle to save our democracy from scoundrels

Published by The i paper (19th June, 2023)

It is now official: Boris Johnson is a lying scoundrel. He is branded forever as a man who treated his country with contempt during the first global pandemic for a century, then tried to cover up his arrogance and deceit with a torrent of untruths.

This is unsurprising to those of us who have pointed out for years his selfish toxicity – as is the trademark cowardice that led him to flee the scene of his crimes in Westminster so hastily. Typically, he tried to hide behind a Trump-like smokescreen as he hurled abuse at his parliamentary judges, fraudulently claiming to be the victim of a sinister ‘witch-hunt’ led by Labour veteran Harriet Harman.

As Bob Marley sang, you can fool some people some of the time but you can’t fool all the people all the time. Now we can hope this unsavoury character is consigned to the history books as a tragic chapter in our island story, left to perform on the sidelines with his fading comedy act while more serious politicians focus on the nation’s mounting problems.

Despite Johnson’s departure, however, it remains crucial that every MP who cares about democracy turns up to back the damning report into his deceptions by the Privileges Committee on Monday. Lying ministers, even prime ministers, must be held to account to help restore any trust in Westminster.

So ignore Johnson’s infantile attention-seeking. Look instead at Harman, whom he accuses of political assassination to suit her purposes, despite being at the helm of a Tory-majority committee. She is the former prime minister’s antithesis: a Labour woman of sturdy principle, so focused on her feminist mission for more than four decades in Westminster that she put up with levels of sexism and vitriol that would have crushed most male colleagues. Even the Tory-supporting Daily Telegraph hailed her as “dauntless and indefatigable” when she stood down as her party’s deputy leader in 2015.

Harman entered Parliament 41 years ago when pregnant after winning a by-election in London, then a Tory stronghold. In the following year’s general election, won by Margaret Thatcher, only 22 other women were returned. She felt disliked for the first two decades amid all the braying men. “It was horrible and lonely and painful. I very nearly opted to leave. It’s very difficult to be with people when they are meant to be your colleagues and they are being actively hostile,” she reflected later. Yet she was driven to stay in Parliament by the sense of injustice and the fight for equal rights that led her first into law, then Labour politics.

She relied on mastery of policy to survive and push her causes – another contrast with the slapdash approach of Johnson. This might not make her an entertainer, the sort of person to win laughs on a television quiz show, but it made her a formidable politician. I dealt with Harman when another parliamentary committee she chaired held an inquiry into detention of people with autism and learning disabilities, which I have highlighted and campaigned to end. She grasped the detail with great speed, seeing how this scandal involved grotesque human rights abuse in the heart of the NHS. I was impressed by both her approach and her uncompromising conclusions.

If Johnson thought Harman would wilt under fire, he demonstrated his foolishness again with the ferocity of the Privileges Committee’s response to his intimidation. Yet even among the four Tory members on the committee, you can find another MP who offers welcome contrast to his former leader with his decency, devotion to duty and honesty. Despite spending almost two decades in parliament, Sir Charles Walker, MP for Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, is far from a household name. Yet he is such a stickler for the rules that in 2015 he led a backbench rebellion to save speaker John Bercow from being ousted in a plot by his own government.

Walker won respect for campaigning on mental health after admitting to his own struggles and, above all, for the way in which he admitted to his own prejudice after meeting families of people who died in police cells. This led him on a journey that sparked the first parliamentary debate on deaths of black people in custody. “For the past 30 years, since I became an adult, I have been aware of grieving black families on the steps of courts or inquests flashing across my television screen. Up until this point I have chosen to do nothing. Now I am standing up and trying to do something,” he said. “We have not done the right thing by the African-Caribbean community.”

He was seen for many years as a dutiful loyalist, the sort of unflamboyant figure who obeys the whips in votes. Yet his explosion of righteous fury in the lobby over the “shambles and disgrace” that led to the fiasco of Liz Truss’s government went viral on social media as he accused ministers of placing personal ambition over party and national interests.

As with Harman, there are areas where we would disagree; he is, after all, a Brexiteer. And like Harman, Walker is standing down at the next election, dismayed by the tribal anger and threats aimed at politicians. “Our democracy is not in a good place,” he told me. 

He is right. The revelations of lockdown parties, then the lies and deceit, extended the breach between Parliament and the public. This is why it is crucial to defend the rules of Westminster with strong backing for the Privileges Committee report and resist efforts to undermine its legitimacy – and why any weasels that abstain or fail to turn up for the vote deserve scorn.

This is a fight for the soul of our politics – to save Westminster from egotists and hucksters who see it only as a platform for their personal ambitions. On one side stands the shamed Johnson, on the other admirable politicians such as Harman and Walker. Ultimately, the health of our democracy depends on the outcome of this struggle. 

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