Are sleaze scandals and lax standards undermining your platform of “professionalism”? Are your MPs frustrated and worried about their long-term future? Is the sense of impending electoral dissolution an illusion by MPs about the indiscretions of predecessors? The symptoms, I’m afraid, are a malignant case of “long boris.”
The thinking behind “Long Boris” – a recent addition to the Westminster vernacular – is quite simple. Seven months after Johnson’s defence, it’s a term coined to capture the former prime minister’s lasting influence on Conservative politics and the culture of governance in Whitehall.
Proponents of the “Long Boris” theory say it explains the current impasse in British politics, as the problems that became so endemic during Johnson’s time in Downing Street continue to thwart the sage Sunak’s political prospects. Undoubtedly, a series of recent sleaze scandals creates a sense of a Prime Minister under siege, struggling to deal with the debilitating effects of Johnson’s lax approach to standards.
On Sunday, the government’s independent ethics adviser’s report concluded that Nadeem Zahawi had “shown insufficient respect for the general principles of the Ministerial Code” in his tax affairs. Sage Sunak received the information at 7.00 am and Jahawi was formally captured two hours later. It was an attempt to appear decisive and objective, but the move failed to silence critics who retorted: “Too little, too late”.
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Zahawi has become the latest in a long line of Conservative MPs to succumb to accusations of “sleaze”, following in a path already trodden by Chris Pincher, Wayne Patterson and Gavin Williamson. The drip-drip of the Zahawi scandal, in which reported wrongdoing was first denied and defended before being considered impeachable, harkens back to the sick months of Johnson’s administration.
At the very least, the Zahawi affair appears to be an open-and-shut case of “Long Boris”. Zahavi’s appointment as chancellor was one of the final acts of Johnson’s ailing premiership. It was a decision that put the YouGov co-founder under the ultimate control of HMRC, while its officials investigated his finances, according to reports. Of course, we don’t know for sure what Johnson knew about these matters, but the former prime minister’s flexible approach to standards, and the then prime minister facing political oblivion, may indicate that he was not so strict. He could have lived in Jahawi’s financial failure. Now, it seems, Rishi Sunak is reaping the political rewards.
Johnson’s central role in the Zahawi story, at the same time the former prime minister faces questions surrounding his own finances in a story involving the BBC chair, shows how much the “long Boris” can cloud the political landscape. It has stalled any political momentum Sunak has made since October, reopening old wounds in his party and country.
That’s a particular problem for Sunak, who sold himself to the public as the sleaze-buster-in-chief last October. After entering the top 10, Sunak promised to clean up everything that went wrong under Johnson with a new administration titled “integrity, professionalism and accountability.” This now appears to be a profound political miscalculation. As the Zahawi affair underscored anew, Sunak has so far been able to catalyze a fresh and renewed approach to government.
It is worth noting, however, that Johnson’s legacy may not be limited to the practical effects of his lax approach to “sleaze” and standards. The politics here are more complex and potentially, even more tenuous.
In 2019, Sunak was elected, as was the rest of his parliamentary party, as part of the Conservative majority won by Johnson. And although many MPs lamented how things turned out after the 2019 election, there is no disguising that the Conservative Party was elected on an unequivocal Johnsonite platform, with a mandate conditioned in particular by the then Prime Minister’s unique appeal.
Sunak’s problem is that Johnson’s populism is not so easily buried. The former prime minister’s political instincts seem to have driven conservative politics into a policy vacuum, as difficult to escape as any morality. We saw this play out in real-time during Sunak’s visit to the country to announce the new leveling fund.
Flattened Johnsonism was distilled: a catchy slogan, a few billion quid and a monument to mark the end of it all. It was central to his political brand, incorporating a stated concern with spreading opportunity across the country and Britain’s high hopes for social progress post-Brexit. Sage Sunak, on the other hand, still has his heart and his head in the treasury. Where Boris Johnson never saw a spending commitment he didn’t like, our current Prime Minister prefers to be pragmatic, telling the “hard truth”. The harder the truth is for the current prime minister, be it the strike or the economy, the better.
So “Long Boris” is not an easily curable disorder. In terms of both policy and standards, Johnson’s troubled legacy is exacting a heavy toll.
Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, sustaining “Long Boris” politics may not be easy. As Johnson prepares for a series of public confrontations with the Privileges Committee, which is investigating whether he lied to MPs about the “Partygate” affair, the specter of eroding his former boss looms large.
Politically, Johnson’s appearance before the Privileges Committee will remind the public that Sunak was also charged with “partygate” fines. It seems that wherever the political wind blows, Sunak must be haunted by his predecessor, forever beset by his political and moral blunders.