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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
William Keegan

Brexit was bad, but Boris Johnson’s glib lawbreaking is much worse

Protesters outside Downing Street hold a 'guilty as hell' sign with a picture of Boris Johnson
Protesters outside Downing Street make their feelings known last week. Photograph: Vuk Valcic/Shutterstock

The prime minister has fallen out with his chancellor? Happy Easter and please tell me something new. Indeed, tension between Nos 10 and 11 Downing Street is almost par for the course. Margaret Thatcher did not get on with Geoffrey Howe – her chancellor from 1979 to 1983 – and after he was moved on to other departments they eventually fell out completely over Europe, about which Thatcher thought Howe far too enthusiastic.

The tension between Tony Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, between 1997 and 2007 was principally about Brown’s desire to take over the reins, but also about – here we go again – Europe. In that case, the argument was about whether or not to join the euro.

But until now, the really great falling out between Nos 10 and 11 was that between Thatcher and Nigel Lawson (1983 to 1989) over – what else? – Europe.

Now, before we go further, I feel it is my duty to remind my Brexiter readers (they do exist) that while Thatcher had her concerns about sovereignty, possibly her greatest achievement on the economic front was her part in the formation of, and our participation in, the European single market, officially formed in 1987.

The big struggle between Thatcher and Lawson was partly over whether we should join the European exchange rate mechanism (ERM), the precursor to the single currency. But it was also over what Thatcher believed was Lawson’s subterfuge in conducting policy to align the movements of the pound to those of West Germany’s currency, the deutsche mark.

Lawson (now a Brexiter) admired the way the Germans controlled inflation, and wanted to bask in their monetary shadow. He also thought successfully “shadowing” the mark would break Thatcher’s opposition to joining the ERM.

Lawson appears to be one of the heroes of the present chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Prime minister Johnson’s heroes are supposed to be Churchill and the ancient Greek politician Pericles; rumour has it that there is a bust of Pericles in what passes for Johnson’s office.

Pericles is chiefly remembered for a famous funeral oration. But, as the American humorist and historian Will Cuppy wrote in his great work The Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody, Johnson’s Athenian hero also broke the law: “Strictly speaking, the age of Pericles may be said to have ended in 430BC, when Pericles was found guilty of embezzling public funds.”

Cuppy adds: “It was never the same after that.”

At this stage I am reminded of one of Alexander Pope’s maxims: “For forms of government let fools contest; whate’er is best administered is best.” The government we now have is badly, and maliciously, administered. It is a national and international disgrace. Much goes back to Johnson and Brexit, and the rot that has set in since. In essence, this country is adding the economic consequences of Brexit to the dreadful problems most countries now face from the biggest world economic crisis since the second world war.

Thus, even before the deleterious impact of the Ukraine tragedy, the UK’s overseas trade was collapsing and the trade figures were terrible. The documentation involved in formerly simple business transactions with the EU is driving small-and medium-sized businesses to distraction. As for the Brexit-related chaos on the Dover road, as London cab drivers tend to say, don’t get me started, guv.

And as for regaining sovereignty and being in control of funds that used to come from Brussels? Well, the north’s “red wall” areas are finding that Whitehall’s substitute grants are in fact somewhat lower than the ones they used to receive from the EU.

But passionate though I feel about the damaging nonsense of Johnson’s “getting Brexit done”, I feel even more passionate about his glib attitude to lawbreaking.

“Loyal” Conservative backbenchers are diminishing themselves by rushing to be “understanding” about Johnson’s actions. They would do much better to take note of the resignation of the justice minister, David Wolfson. Quite rightly, Wolfson could no longer live with being part of an administration that appears to think there is nothing wrong with breaking its own laws. Moreover, it is an administration that has laughed at a public that has obeyed those laws, often at considerable personal cost.

This is not just about the interests of the Conservative party: it is about the integrity of the nation. As Virgil wrote in the Aeneid: “Crimine ab uno disce omnes” – from a single crime know the nation – or, as in Dryden’s magnificent translation: “Behold a nation in a man compris’d.”

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