From the day before I went on holiday this summer, I didn’t want to watch the news. I had the firm resolve to disconnect from any source of stress and disquiet, and therefore it was in a taxi, as I arrived in Paris on the 7th of July, where I found out, thanks to the driver, that Boris Johnson—the unmentionable, abominable, despicable buffoon that passes himself off as Prime Minister—was, at long last, leaving. As I watched the city through the window on my way to the place where I’d sleep that night, I thought that it was magnificent news, but also that the unedifying brawl among his possible successors over the job didn’t promise at all a clear or immediate liberation from the last three years of ignominy. I wasn’t going to ruin my holidays sullying my perception of the world with such distractions, and therefore, for thirteen days I lived as if worms did not exist, happy to realize that it’s perfectly possible… at least for a short while.
It wasn’t difficult, on my return, to follow the thread of events, confirm that, of late, everything’s farce and carnival in the UK’s politics, and here I am now, trying to organise my thoughts, and to brace myself for what’s coming, which isn’t hopeful in any way.
That Johnson’s downfall ended up being a sexual scandal (MP Chris Pincher groped two males in a gentlemen’s private club; Johnson had knowledge of other accusations of sexual harassment, which he’d ignored, and Pincher had been appointed Minister of State for Europe and Chief Whip in the House of Commons during his administration) is quite astonishing, not for lack of pertinence in the outraged voices raised against him, but for not having happened before, despite the countless reasons why Johnson’s presence as Prime Minister has been catastrophic, immoral and indefensible, even crossing the threshold of legality. The protests and indignation should have broken out the very day he took up the post, in July 2019.
Back then I had already spoken in these virtual pages, in a piece titled “The Beast”, about how abhorrent it was to have Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. I won’t repeat myself here; all I will say is that the collapse of political life in the United Kingdom, as well as the disappearance of the last vestiges of human decency in the post that many of us forecasted, were fulfilled in excess.
In the opening words of this video, Journalist Peter Orbone summarises the dimensions of the sewer in which we’ve been immersed: “Boris Johnson is the most venal, the biggest liar, the most immoral and the most incompetent Prime Minister in all British history.”
But we knew all that, and, even more important, the Conservative Party that led him to the post knew it too, as Jonathan Pie reminds us with insuperable eloquence, and with the despair that we all share, in his sketch following Johnson’s resignation.
After a cascade of more than 60 resignations, either of MPs of the Conservative Party or cabinet ministers (one every 15 minutes on the debacle’s most critical day), votes of no-confidence and sackings; after the deafening message from the immense majority of the British people that we want him to get lost, even the night before Johnson was defiantly declaring that, if his party wanted to “overthrow the elected will of the people”, they’d have to “dip their hands in blood”. God only knows what images he pretended to conjure up with this last tantrum and bragging. In the best Trump style, his initial response was a deranged “I won’t leave”… until even he had to accept the reality: he was being kicked out.
However, both in his resignation speech on that 7th of July and in his last appearance at Prime Minister’s Questions Boris Johnson regaled us with an altered version of reality, with a triumphalist rhetoric that describes a very different country from the one flinging over a cliff in front of his eyes. “Mission largely accomplished”, he said during PMQs, and, to remind us that there is absolutely nothing in this world that this man takes seriously, he concluded with an “Hasta la vista… baby”, to the ovation of those loyal lackeys still left in his party. Like Trump again, it is likely that in his delirium Johnson is dreaming of going back to Downing Street in the future.
It is hard to know who bears the biggest shame: those lackeys who keep on adulating him and celebrating his jokes, or all the Conservative Party members and cabinet ministers who suddenly resigned in horror last July, as if they hadn’t been not only witnesses but accomplices of Johnson’s ignominy from the very start of his career in public life, and as if they hadn’t supported him up to yesterday. A large proportion of UK citizens has lived all these years without understanding what such a scoundrel and charlatan is doing in government, without these individuals who are now beating their breasts even noticing.
The scandals are infinite. We hear, for instance, of how Johnson wanted to give his then lover, now wife, a £100.000 a year sinecure when he was Foreign Secretary; of how he’s tried to fund luxury holidays using money donated to his party by millionaire buddies; the nepotism and corruption that involved millions of pounds that went to friends of Johnson’s and other members of his cabinet, as well as Party donors, through contracts without competition awarded to the Randox laboratories and PPE suppliers at the beginning of the Covid emergency are well known by all. Johnson was quick to grant those contracts, but did not deign to attend five of the emergency Cobra meetings when the pandemic started. His irresponsibility in his handling of the pandemic then cost many lives, and there are, of course, the parties attended by him and members of his cabinet, breaking the law, when the rest of the country was complying with the harsh reality of lockdown, which were a slap in the face of the whole nation, including a National Health Service already on its knees, and all those who just then were losing loved ones without being able to be near them. Before that, Johnson had already lied to the Queen in regard to his initiative to suspend Parliament for five weeks during the constitutional crisis around Brexit. His government’s abject legacy includes the bribing of a great deal of the national press, in the hands of a handful of millionaires, and, as James Butler rightly states at the London Review of Books (21 July 2022), on top of countless unfulfilled promises, in particular regarding our battered NHS, the “strengthening [of] the repressive state in domestic and border policing, and in weakening regulatory bodies of all kinds”. That is to say, Johnson has attempted to bend the law in order to adapt it to his interests, while he increased censorship and repression aiming at limiting civil liberties that might put his strategies at risk. As an example, we can mention the proposal for the new Public Order Bill, that threatens with criminalising any authentic democratic form of protest; one of its main targets are Extinction Rebellion’s actions: that initiative of silencing and repression is the only thing that Johnson’s administration has done regarding the climate emergency. The list of vile tricks, aberrations and lies is truly infinite. Surely the readers know many of them, so let’s stop here.
When it seemed impossible to even dream of seeing the end of such impunity, Johnson fell at last—something that stirred up quite a commotion among the old accomplices in his party who now wanted to sit on his chair. In the end, the contest was reduced to two candidates: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, none of whom had any qualms about supporting Johnson up to seconds before his downfall, let alone the guts to confront and denounce him. Sunak resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer two days before Johnson’s fall, and the day after this he was already announcing his nomination for the Prime Minister post. Sunak and his wife, Akshata Murty, are in the list of the richest people in the UK, with a joint fortune of approximately £730 million pounds. Yes. You read right. How can this man understand what are the needs of a population more and more overwhelmed by a rampant financial crisis, when more and more people, even if they have a job, are in the need to turn to food banks to feed their family? And what trouble could the £50 fine he received for having attended Johnson’s birthday party during lockdown have caused him? (Let’s not forget that he was in those parties too.) His resignation letter simply reflects that he was getting tired of dealing with the ever-growing public fury against Johnson, and that it was more convenient for him to refer to some moral stature of which he has no knowledge, then propose himself for taking his place.
As for Liz Truss, in 2019 she desisted from her initial intention to stand as Theresa May’s possible successor in order to support Johnson’s candidature, a support for which she was indeed rewarded. She has been investigated for the probably illegal shipment of equipment to Saudi Arabia that could be construed as support for the war in Yemen; meetings she held with the Institute of Economic Affairs disappeared from the public registry in 2020, with the excuse of them being “personal conversations”, and therefore casting doubt on her commitment to transparency. Some of her most admired politicians are Ronald Reagan y Margaret Thatcher.
And you can tell. In the debates they’ve held in the past few days, both Sunak and Truss keep on talking about the value of “hard work” that Thatcher extolled so much, as if this virtue were unknown to a country where most people work ceaselessly, often with more than one job, and are exhausted, with ever less purchasing power, and incapable of understanding why salaries have been stagnant for years. In those debates, the candidates respond to the most urgent questions (about employment, inflation and the increasing cost of living, the lack of real support to the NHS, the climate emergency) with evasion and meaningless rhetoric, then go back to their presentation of their government project as if it were something completely new, different from the abomination that Johnson’s administration has been; as if they didn’t both come from that abomination’s very womb. As if people had no memory.
Meanwhile, life for normal people in this country becomes more and more precarious. It is most alarming to go to the supermarket, to the pharmacy, to take public transport, to buy anything, and see how the cost of everything keeps on rising without any limit seemingly in sight. The already soaring price of energy bills will go on rising, which promises for many an atrocious winter. According to several polls, many people have already started to spend less in food, because they simply can’t afford to do otherwise. And though it is true that the pandemic’s blow to the economy and the war in Ukraine are among the causes of this crisis, to these we must add the Brexit disaster, and the broadening gap between poor and rich—or rather, millionaires, billionaires even, the oligarchs that sustain a Conservative Party utterly disconnected from reality. According to some economic analysts, the prospects of economic growth in the UK are, among the G20 nations, the worst after Russia’s.
In such a panorama, strikes aren’t surprising, including the frequent strikes of public transport workers.
In the street I see people working—very hard, without a doubt—and many people who clearly seem to be struggling. There are also those who seem defeated already, plus the homeless and, as a friend commented recently, there seem to be more mad, or, to be more precise, desperate people, in the streets of London. This, of course, may be the effect of the two terrible years we passed in the grip of the pandemic, which ended up breaking the most fragile, and of the global apocalyptic atmosphere, but it certainly doesn’t help to know that the social welfare system in this country is being dismantled at vertiginous speed by a handful of wealthy, cynical and corrupt politicians.
As I write these lines, Truss seems to be ahead in the contest. The truth is, though, that it is irrelevant. The loss of trust in the political class in the UK is absolute, and it’s the direct consequence of the also absolute loss of integrity and dignity in those who have held power during recent years.
Until not too long ago, I used to believe that the UK was a country in which the excesses, mismanagement and dishonesty of politicians (creatures which it’s wise not to trust too much in any country, because, as we well know, power is a drug that softens the brain and hardens the heart) were more or less checked by a legal and scrutiny system in which it was possible to hold rulers accountable. Boris Johnson’s administration has been the end of that protective mechanism. It came like a deluge of filth that reached every nook and cranny. It is clear that neither Sunak nor Truss, both accomplices, will be cleaning up. The only, utterly sad consolation we have is that both of them are only unprincipled opportunists, but, unlike Johnson, don’t seem to be absolute sociopaths.
With a drifting and weakened Labour Party and no other real opposition, the UK’s immediate future doesn’t bode well. I can’t see where the competent and able politician, with at least a minimum of human dignity, who could redress the harm and show another way will come from. Hope is, therefore, in the people; in how we learn to articulate a much-needed resistance.
*Photo by Captain Roger Fenton
Adriana Díaz-Enciso es poeta, narradora y traductora. Ha publicado las novelas La sed, Puente del cielo, Odio y Ciudad doliente de Dios, inspirada en los Poemas proféticos de William Blake; los libros de relatos Cuentos de fantasmas y otras mentiras y Con tu corazón y otros cuentos, y seis libros de poesía. Su más reciente publicación, Flint (una elegía y diario de sueños, escrita en inglés) puede encontrarse aquí.
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