Boris Johnson’s Partygate has echoes of Al Capone’s downfall – Carnegie Europe
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has grabbed daily headlines in recent weeks, with stories of ‘Partygate’ threatening to end his run for the helm of the UK. Beyond the wild oscillations of these reports, alternately amusing and shocking, two fundamental truths emerge. First, with his campaign to become Prime Minister, he pushed his country to the forefront of relevance in world affairs. Second, as prime minister, he tipped him on this edge. Until recently, what the UK said and did mattered in Europe and beyond. Not anymore. Today, these things provoke hilarity, pity or nostalgia, but not the serious attention of decision-makers in Washington, Brussels, Moscow or Beijing.
Less than ten years ago, the UK made a difference. The cliché was true: London punched above its weight – in economic power, in its special relationship with the United States, in its aid programs and in its commitment to democratic standards. But one by one, Johnson removed each of those assets.
Johnson was the most prominent face in the 2016 referendum campaign to leave the EU and hesitated until the last moment before deciding which side to support. Given the tight result, his decision to vote off may have had a decisive influence on the outcome. Today, the UK represents just 3% of the global economy, a far cry from the EU’s 21% when the UK was a member. When it comes to global negotiations on issues such as trade, banking, taxation, product standards and legal regulations, the UK is now a rules-taker, with little influence on this that is happening.
Britain’s vaunted special relationship with the United States may have been less intense than in the days of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt, but it still mattered. Now that relationship is weaker than at any time in living memory. Besides no longer acting as a bridge between Washington and Brussels, Johnson has done nothing to mend his relationship with US President Joe Biden, possibly making matters worse by reneging on the deal he made with the US. EU on post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland. (Biden, proud of his Irish roots, made no secret of his irritation with Johnson and the danger that the Northern Ireland peace process could fail.) And if there was any doubt that the terms had changed between London and Washington, it came with the American withdrawal from Afghanistan six months ago. Previously, when the United States took or considered military action in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya or Syria, it worked closely with diplomats, politicians and the British armed forces. The UK was not consulted on the exit decision or given advance notice.
The UK’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU is also at an all-time low. A war of words over asylum seekers making the perilous journey in small dinghies across the English Channel has poisoned Johnson’s relationship with French President Emmanuel Macron. Shortly before Christmas, French media reported that Macron had called Johnson a “clown” with “the attitude of a vulgar”. The reports have not been denied.
London’s generous and much admired program for financing development in the poorest countries has long reinforced its soft power influence. But in July 2020, the Johnson administration abandoned the hitherto bipartisan commitment to spend 0.7% of national income on development aid for the poorest countries. Aid to Yemen has been cut by 60% and aid to Syria has dropped by 70%. The cuts were condemned by all three living former prime ministers of the Conservative Party. Around the world, the UK has lost its reputation for both the size and the quality of its aid programmes.
Finally, a trend harder to measure, but still pervasive, London has commanded respect for its leading role over the centuries in developing the principles of human rights and demonstrating the virtues of stable democracy. But in recent years, Johnson has repeatedly challenged accepted norms of behavior. He suspended meetings of Parliament at the height of the Brexit drama, shortly after becoming prime minister, only to be overturned by the Supreme Court, which unanimously ruled he had acted unlawfully. In recent weeks, he has made false claims about the country’s economic growth, employment figures, support for poor families struggling to warm up, the crime rate and his plans for new hospitals, ignoring the convention that misrepresentations must be corrected.
After all that, you’d think Johnson’s days as prime minister would be numbered. We would be right, but not because of this record. Instead, he has been caught throwing parties that break laws he imposed on the country to minimize the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. He is condemned for the hypocrisy that has destroyed so many political careers around the world: behaving as if the rules he conceives for others do not apply to him.
Attentive listeners can hear the echo of Al Capone. The mobster was jailed for tax evasion, not murder and racketeering; Johnson faces being kicked out of office for bending his own lockdown rules, without plunging the UK into the abyss of insignificance.
Yet, as with Capone, the specific scandal that could bring Johnson down shines a light on his true character. Throughout his career as a journalist and politician, he has repeatedly confirmed the verdict of one of his teachers four decades ago: “I think he honestly believes that he is being rude to our hand not to consider him as an exception, someone who should be free from the web of obligations that binds everyone. So we are nearing the end of Johnson’s career in circumstances that have little to do with the great things he did to diminish London’s stature, but a lot to do with his all-encompassing personality. life.
Once he is gone, can the UK regain its influence and, once again, rise above its weight? An optimist would point to the UK’s place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and its status as one of Western Europe’s two nuclear powers. These provide the foundation for some sort of recovery. A reversal of foreign aid cuts would help. But, as long as the UK remains outside the EU, the possibility of reversing the effects of Johnson’s premiership is limited.
More fundamentally, countries are, in one respect, like people and businesses. Trust and respect, built up gradually over years, are easy to destroy, but painfully slow to recover.