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It’s a scandal that Boris Johnson ever got to No 10 and shameful that he’s still around | Jonathan Freeland

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IIt comes to something when there is more accountability in a hereditary monarchy than in our elected government. Even at Buckingham Palace there are consequences for his actions, as Prince Andrew learned on Thursday when he was stripped of his jobs. At the Palace of Westminster, not so much.

The contrast could hardly be sharper. On the one hand, a queen so determined to show she was not above the rules that she cried alone as she buried the man she loved for 73 years. On the other, a Prime Minister who runs Downing Street like a brotherhood, where bottles would have been brought by the suitcase and where they danced in the basement even on the eve of this austere royal funeral, even in full confinement.

And yet, Johnson remains in his post, his titles are still at his disposal. There is confident chatter, informed in the newspapers, than the hell get away with it. His team is already shooting in advance the report of Civil Service Inquisitor Sue Gray, suggesting they won’t find any foul play that deliberately disregards the role of his investigation, setting the bar low enough for Johnson to say that he crossed it and that we should all move on.

Meanwhile, his supporters, and even some of his opponents, ponder what serves them best: kick him out or let him stay. There are Tories looking at the calendar, asking if local elections in May might be the time. There are Labor who wonder if it might be worth having a weakened Johnson to hit by the next general election.

I understand all these calculations. But what does it mean for our system if it is allowed to hold out? What does it say about us?

What would it say, for example, to our eternal boast that we are a society subject to the rule of law that the man who makes the rules is allowed to break them and break them so flagrantly? I know it’s hard to follow, but the party we were all focused on before the basement nightclub reveal was on May 20, 2020, when lockdown was still a relative novelty and most Britons monitored themselves with extraordinary self-discipline and self-sacrifice. Johnson says he went to that garden party, attended by his wife and some of his friends, where the gin and ros were flowing, and thought he was at a business event. No sane person believes that to be true. But if he remains in his post, we say that we accept him.

What will he say about the supposedly inviolable convention that a minister who lies or misleads the House of Commons must resign? Johnson was guilty of that on Wednesday with that absurd work event, but it wasn’t the first time. On December 1 last year, when asked about one of Downing Street’s seemingly daily parties which had just been revealed, Johnson tell the deputies all the guidelines were completely followed in #10. This was obviously wrong, and he must have known it was wrong because he himself had attended such a rule-breaking party on May 20, 2020. Whatever elaborate outlet he tries to construct, we can all see the truth. If Johnson’s lie goes unpunished, a convention that evolved to allow the public to feel a basic level of trust in his government will have been broken.

It will hurt our Democratic health, but what will it mean for our literal health if Johnson is allowed to stay? If there were to be a new serious variant of this disease, which requires a return to total confinement, it is clear that he could not impose it. The country would simply refuse to follow the instructions of a man who so openly laughed at them last time. Indeed, it is not clear that any government can again impose such restrictions: the electorate may well conclude from this episode that all politicians and their officials are as hypocritical as the current gang within No 10 and refuse to comply. It’s a grim possibility. But with Johnson himself, that’s for sure. The country cannot go through a public health crisis with this man at the helm. If that was true of Matt Hancock kissing his lover, a point Johnson conceded when he accepted Hancock’s resignation, then it’s a hundred times true of him.

Of course, there were several reasons Johnson was fired, even before we knew he had turned Downing Street into Studio 54 in Whitehall. The High Court on Wednesday found governments’ use of a VIP lane to award lucrative PPE contracts during the first wave of the pandemic was unlawful, once again exposing a pattern of behavior which, if spotted in any other country but ours, we would call corruption. What does it say to us that no one for a minute thinks Johnson will be kicked out for all of this?

Many are now hoping that Sue Gray will come to the rescue, that in calm, tangerine prose she will find the Prime Minister unambiguously guilty. But that’s a fantasy, just as it was a fantasy to expect Robert Mueller to overthrow Donald Trump for collusion with Russia, or Robin Butler delete Tony Blair on Iraq. I spoke to Lord Butler on Friday, and he reminded me that inquests of this type are not intended to declare guilt or innocence, only to establish the facts. He thinks Gray will explain what happened. It is then up to other people to make judgments. These others will include the police, who will determine if there is evidence of criminal activity. It’s their job, not Grays. That is why it is so dishonest of Downing Street to be briefed that the official will rule on a question that was not asked of her.

Johnson’s fate will not be decided by her, but by politics: first by MPs and, if necessary, by the people. Johnson’s former Telegraph editor Max Hastings once wrote that if Johnson, a man he believed would not recognize the truth if confronted with it in an identity parade, became Prime Minister, that would show that Britain was no longer a serious country. If we allow Johnson to remain Prime Minister, given all he has done and all we have seen, it would mean something much, much worse.

  • Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

  • Join our journalists for a Guardian Live online event on Lockdown Party No 10 and the future of Boris Johnson at 8-9pm GMT on Wednesday 19 January. Book here

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