Dishonesty Writes End to Boris
South Asians played major role in British government including when they left it
By: John Elliott
It took the UK’s two most prominent South Asian politicians, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, to trigger a series of rapid moves that led to the reluctant July 7 resignation of Boris Johnson, Britain’s charismatic but self-serving delusional prime minister.
By morning more than 50 other ministers had resigned. In what has become the most dramatic prime ministerial crisis for decades, others stayed in their posts but through the night and into the morning, many advised Johnson to resign.
Johnson began to assemble a list of successors to those who had gone, but this morning he realized the numbers were against him and announced he was resigning as Conservative Party leader, though he intends to remain as prime minister till a successor is elected in two or three months.
That will be opposed by some party leaders who argue that Johnson cannot be trusted and has lost his right to rule. Some want him gone by the end of next week, but September looks more likely. Under normal practice, a prime minister would inform the Queen that he or she was resigning and would be invited to stay on in the interim.
Javid, secretary of state for health whose parents moved to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s, was the first minister to resign on July 5. He was followed a few minutes later by Sunak, the finance minister (Chancellor of the Exchequer) and son-in-law of India’s Infosys founder Narayana Murthy.
Among those who struck the final blows was Nadhim Zahawi, who came to the UK when his Kurdish parents fled from Iraq in the 1970s. He advised Johnson to resign this morning, even though just 36 hours earlier he had been appointed by the prime minister to take over the finance minister post from Sunak. He had been education secretary and health minister.
Johnson won the last general election in 2019 with a massive majority and he has not been ousted for any policy failings. His successes have included Brexit, a world-leading Covid vaccine program (after failing to focus in the early months of 2020), and support for Ukraine, though he leaves behind massive economic problems including the highest inflation for four decades, and unsolved post-Brexit problems.
Johnson is going because he avoided taking responsibility for keeping Chris Pincher, a loyal ally, in office as a parliamentary deputy chief whip despite a series of sex scandals. The crunch came after Pincher groped another man one evening last week in the Conservative Party’s elite Carlton Club. Pincher was suspended from the party, but Johnson resisted insisting he resign as an MP.
Johnson’s office denied he had known about Pincher’s scandals, and government ministers were instructed to deliver this message in various television interviews. Two days ago, Johnson admitted he had known and this proved to be the turning point, leading to the Javid and Sunak resignations.
Throughout his career as a journalist, editor (of The Spectator), and politician – and through marriages and affairs – Johnson has shown a disdain for established institutions and conventions and a scant respect for the truth.
As a Daily Telegraph columnist puts it, in a career of “astonishing highs and lows” he has “constantly broken rules or bent them to his own advantage, simultaneously beguiling and exasperating bosses, colleagues, friends, wives and lovers.”
Inevitably, that style has led to a series of crises since he became prime minister in 2019 – but he survived them all after issuing profound apologies, taking “full responsibility for what has happened.” This turned the usual politician’s dictum of “never apologize” on its head, but it enabled Boris to successfully close down debate and move on – till the next scandal.
He has been under increasing pressure to resign since revelations earlier this year that he lied about whether he knew numerous illegal parties were held in Downing Street during the Covid lockdowns. He was fined £50 by police for attending one of them, though he and his wife Carrie, who he married while prime minister, attended several more.
Despite serious by-election setbacks last month that indicated a decline in his status as a massively popular and charismatic politician, he successfully resisted efforts to sack him. On June 6, he survived a confidence vote among 259 Conservative MPs by 211 votes to 148, a poor result which he interpreted as support for him continuing in office. That continued until his apology route failed this week over the Pincher affair.
He showed no contrition in his resignation statement outside 10 Downing Street today and incredibly suggested the mass ministerial resignations showed he had been the victim of Westminster’s “herd” mentality. “The herd instinct is powerful,” he said. “But when it moves, it moves.”
Together with Javid and Sunak, Zahawi is among Britain’s richest MPs and, along with Javid, will almost certainly stand in the coming election for the leadership of the Conservative Party.
Despite limited political experience (he became an MP in 20-15), Sunak was extensively promoted in the media as the next likely prime minister soon after he became finance minister three years ago. He said in his resignation letter that he had policy differences with Johnson, so it seems he may well have been glad to leave the government.
He added that he realized he might never again hold a ministerial post. He and his wife, Akshata Murty, came under extensive public scrutiny earlier this year for their massive wealth and she was criticized for retaining non-domiciled status that meant she escaped paying £20 million in UK taxes.
Javid made a powerful resignation speech in parliament yesterday, marking himself out as an ambitious politician, but Sunak made no statement. Their resignations were followed by two other politicians of Indian origin joining the mass of ministers who did not resign but told Johnson to go.
One was Priti Patel, the controversially acerbic home secretary, who owes her job to Johnson ignoring calls for her to resign over her treatment of senior bureaucrats and her failure to reduce illegal immigration. The second was Suella Braverman, the attorney general, who has had little public exposure but announced last night that she would be a candidate in the coming election.
The emergence of these British Asians as senior politicians reflects the role that the sons and daughters of immigrants are playing in British life.
There is no clear successor for Johnson and there is likely to be a long list of candidates, none of whom can claim to be ideal.
I was asked recently by an Indian diplomat whether I thought the UK was ready for a South Asian prime minister. I replied ‘yes,’ with Javid and maybe Sunak (before the furor over his wife’s wealth) in mind. We will know by October.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent