Why Britain’s contact with democratic collapse is not comparable to ours

It could have been much worse.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s announcement on Thursday morning that he is stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party concluded days of extraordinary resistance to the idea that he should sacrifice his position. Johnson’s decision was due to an accumulation of countless scandals and questions, but was most immediately triggered by his office’s belated admission that he had been briefed on groping charges against an ally before offering to that person, Chris Pincher, a leadership position in the party. So once the Tories choose a new leader, Johnson has pledged to step down as head of the UK government.

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A day or two ago, it wasn’t clear that this succession would be so orderly.

“Theoretically he can hang on almost indefinitely, until he loses half his party,” said Rory Stewart, a former Tory MP. Explain in an interview on CNN earlier this week. “It’s not like the American system. There is no impeachment procedure that can be followed in this manner. Stewart feared that Johnson was “trying to hang on like a cartoon dictator from the Banana Republic”.

When Stewart says “losing half his party,” he’s referring to a process Johnson narrowly survived a month ago. Then, Conservative Party members of parliament held a vote of no confidence in his leadership, with Johnson topping the 180 votes needed to retain his post. Established rules state that prime ministers cannot face two such votes a year, meaning that even when the Pincher scandal broke, Johnson was safe from ousting. (A party committee had planned to consider whether to change that grace period next week, but ultimately decided against it, apparently in part because Johnson’s resignation was expected.) Even as dozens of senior officials in his government began resigning , there was no mechanism in place for anyone but Johnson to step down. of his position. (Although Queen Elizabeth II technically retains the power to dismiss the Prime Minister, no modern-day British monarch has removed one from power.)

To British observers, it was outrageous, a threat to the nation’s political expectations and standards. In a report for the BBC, editor Lewis Goodall amazed that Johnson and his team could hold on despite the fact that “the ministerial code and the civil service code … have embedded in them that the Prime Minister and his spokespersons must tell the truth. Yet he always seemed ready to retain power!

For American observers, there was a familiar aspect to it all. Boris Johnson has long been compared to Donald Trump, from his tonsorial eccentricity to his overheated opposition to past expectations. To see Johnson then rush against the constraints of his power when it was obvious to almost everyone that he had lost his legitimacy? Yeah, seemed about right.

The scenarios are obviously disproportionate to important aspects. Johnson’s power is much more a function of handshake expectations than hard limits. It wasn’t the case that he had lost an election and was hanging on, as was the case with Trump. The reality is that Johnson had far more reason to try to hold on to power than Trump did following the 2020 election.

What is critical, however, is the difference in what happened when that pressure was applied.

Questions about Johnson festered for months, leading to that vote of no confidence in early June. At that time, 148 Tories voted against Johnson – a remarkable rebuke from his own party and one that Trump has never faced. Trump was impeached for ostensibly trying to leverage government power to help his re-election bid — and only one Republican, Sen. Mitt Romney (Utah), voted to impeach or convict. Trump was impeached a second time for his obvious contributions to the violence that unfolded during the Capitol riot, and fewer than 20 House and Senate Republicans joined in that condemnation.

It was only after the Capitol riot, when Trump’s impending departure from the presidency was firmly entrenched in public understanding, that a number of his administration officials announced their resignations. For some, the day’s violence was the obvious trigger. But everything that contributed to this violence — the dishonesty of voter fraud, the amplification of calls to run in DC — had been clear for weeks, as had Trump’s broader effort to overturn the election results. Attorney General William P. Barr was one of the few top executives to resign before all of this unfolded. When he did, he offered a public letter of praise for the president he had served.

Trump likes something Johnson hasn’t: a fervent cult of personality that’s closely tied to the party. Johnson’s approval among conservatives was about evenly split in late June, according to the YouGov poll, with around half saying he was doing poorly as prime minister. Even as Trump endured far more crises and scandals, his Republican base remained loyal to him, at least implicitly demanding that other Republican officials and politicians do the same.

It was this model that was so important in Trump’s efforts to retain power. He had spent more than five years strengthening a system in which millions of Americans were mostly loyal to him and saw him, not the party or the government, as the thing to be protected. Then, as his power was threatened, he mobilized this system for his own benefit. Partly because the appointment of a prime minister does not involve a similar direct election of an individual, Johnson did not have this same system in place.

However, none of this should be taken as particularly comforting to our British friends. The outraged response to Johnson’s stubbornness was littered with warning signs we might have seen in 2016 or 2017. A member of the media marveling at how often an elected leader makes dishonest claims (as does this BBC commentator) would earn belly laughs in post-Trump America; at the BBC, it’s still a novelty. The fact that the response to this dishonesty has been to point fingers at behavior-limiting honor system rules is also something Americans have given up relying on for the past five years. We also thought we had effective standards in place.

Unless he changes his mind, Johnson will be prime minister for a while – maybe a month or two – until a new party leader is appointed. His resignation at this point feels less like Trump’s ousting than former New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s announcement last year: planned — but also angry and petulant. Seen by both as a brief detour from power, but with precision. At this point, however, Johnson and Cuomo’s resignations were also a function of former allies regardless of repercussions.

The UK crisis was less brutal than ours. But Britain should take this moment as a warning. Honesty and honor are insufficient fences for power.

About Roberto Frank

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