Why do we end up with such inadequate prime ministers?

Published by The i paper (17th January, 2022)

Of course Boris Johnson should resign – and if he refuses to leave, he should be pushed out by his party. It is beyond belief anyone disputes this issue. This self-serving character oversaw a culture at the heart of government displaying total contempt for voters by ignoring the lockdown rules it was making amid the worst public health crisis for a century. They drank, danced and partied while a fearful nation shut down, 151,000 citizens died and firms went bust.

But instead of doing their patriotic duty, most Tory MPs stay silent, ministers rally around, rivals calculate the best time to strike and aides work out how to save their boss. Meanwhile the duplicitous man who defiled Downing Street lashes out at officials and prepares a barrage of populist stunts to save his skin.

I have always argued Johnson should never have been made Prime Minister. This has been underscored by his incompetent, sleazy stint in power. Partygate shows how he soils everything; it’s claimed that even Simon Case, the Civil Service chief, and Kate Josephs, head of the Whitehall team drawing up pandemic rules, ignored the edicts, while the police on duty must have witnessed breaches.

It is fitting that a hollow prime minister devoid of policy or principle might be felled by such silly events. Yet this scandal goes far beyond the future of Johnson and who might succeed him. I fear this shocking display of arrogance by a ruling clique drunk on power – which ironically posed as heroes of the people against the elite to win a referendum and take control of their party – will do immense damage to our democracy.

It could as corrosive as the Iraq War, the banking meltdown, the Brexit debate and the parliamentary expenses scandal. After all, why should citizens trust their government, have faith in politicians or even follow laws after learning about these sordid activities amid a crisis being compared to war?

We need to look into the soul of our political system to ask how did Johnson end up in Downing Street? Not least since he comes after a series of prime ministers who proved inadequate for the task of running the country or ended up causing damage – whether by staying on too long (Margaret Thatcher), unleashing a catastrophe at home (David Cameron with Brexit) or abroad (Tony Blair with Iraq), turning out to be empty vessels after fighting furiously to win power (Gordon Brown and Theresa May) or simply torn about by tribalism (John Major). It is not enough to clean up the filthy Augean stables in Downing Street, since the problems go far deeper.

What has gone wrong? I can only stab at answers. Certainly politics is a nasty profession. It is filled with fear and loathing, when allies plot your downfall and even families are fair game in the climate of brutal hostility – and now social media has fuelled the fire and intensified the pressures.

This is overlaid by rigid tribalism, shown by the disturbing reluctance of Tories to oust Johnson. It all serves to stifle serious debate and drive out many decent people who find they are surrounded by snakes and shallow egotists. So we often end up with psychologically flawed actors in lead roles on the political stage, while vital issues such as social care are swept aside.

Then there are more fundamental democratic issues. Parties attract people as members who are more passionate about politics than the rest of society and choose leaders who pander to their prejudices. Perhaps parties should reduce the role of members in leadership contests. Yet MPs want leaders good at campaigning and communications; such people, however, do not necessarily make the best people to run the country, as Johnson has proved so disastrously.

Downing Street also has strangely limited powers while we expect inexperienced ministers to run huge departments overseeing vital services, although I have met some I would not trust to run a sweet shop. Brown and May also showed that running Downing Street requires different skills to running a major department.

My own solutions would include reform of the electoral system with the introduction of proportional representation to force a more consensual approach to politics, along with devolution of far more power to local authorities, left crippled by austerity, and mayors. The roll-out of directly elected mayors this century has been an unusually successful political reform, with both Labour and Tory politicians proving they can make a real difference in places such as Birmingham, Manchester and Tees Valley. This is the surest way to level up our country.

There is also the stench of corruption clinging to our system with rampant cronyism, civil servants and politicians cashing in after leaving office, an antiquated honours system used to buy favours and party donors blatantly purchasing lifetime seats in parliament. This all stains politics and demeans our nation. Johnson’s behaviour in office has highlighted the necessity for more effective and impartial monitoring of politicians, along with the desperate need to strip away Downing Street’s power of patronage through an independent, reformed and transparent honours system – ideally shorn of all those absurd imperial awards.

It is ridiculous also that bishops and hereditary peers remain in the House of Lords; perhaps a flick of Athenian-style democracy with selection of some seats through a lottery would help make parliament rather more grounded. A stronger freedom of information act and more powers for select committees might help keep better track of Westminster and Whitehall. Would prime ministerial term limits help restrain the hubris seen with Thatcher and Blair in their later years? Do we need state funding of parties? Better-paid politicians? Nothing should be out of bounds.

Yes, Johnson is a scoundrel and a scumbag. Yet he is a symptom of problems that will not end with his replacement, since he exposes the rotten underpinnings of our democracy. This scandal is not just about drunken parties but about a broken political system that placed such a dreadful person in Downing Street.

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