Those who have watched him for decades, know him from his Oxford days, are not surprised at the arguments with him at the epicenter
Teflon is the brand name for a chemical called polytetrafluoroethylene, which is widely used in the manufacture of a range of products. There are claims about the chemical’s adverse health effects, but it’s best known for one quality: when pans and other utensils are coated with it, food doesn’t stick when cooked under high heat, which ensures their longevity and also makes them easy to wash. . The ‘non-stick’ quality is so well known that it has become something of a metaphor – especially in politics – since the discovery of the chemical in the early 20th century. Leaders who last a long time in politics, survive multiple challenges, are supposed to have Teflon-like qualities: allegations, accusations, charges and worse just don’t seem to stick.
One leader who has caught the metaphor is Boris Johnson, whose tenure in Downing Street since the 2019 general election includes a series of events that would have led to the resignation of any other prime minister. Those who have watched him for decades, known him from his days at Oxford, or during his career in journalism, are not surprised at the arguments with him at the epicenter. The best-known controversy under his leadership was partygate: parties held in Downing Street during the Covid-19 lockdowns, breaking the laws he imposed as the British public closely followed them, causing one of the most damaging allegations in British politics: “It’s one rule for them and another for us”.
After months of screaming headlines, investigations and police punishments for the Prime Minister, Chancellor Rishi Sunak and many Downing Street staff, Johnson appeared to survive again last week. A long-awaited report from civil servant Sue Gray provided more detail on the parties and again criticized the leadership (she had previously made strong observations in the interim report), but it was not the political guillotine that the Johnson’s criticisms awaited. After Gray’s report was released on Wednesday May 25, he spent the day apologizing profusely in the House of Commons, in a live televised press conference and in front of party MPs. But he also insisted that he believed at the time that the occasions were not parties but work events, that many did not remain work events after he left the premises, and recalled the changes he had made to the management structure and senior officials in his office since the row broke out, saying, “I’m humble and I’ve learned a lesson.”
But as anyone who uses a Teflon-coated pan knows, when the chemical thins out from overuse, the “non-stick” quality also fades. There is currently no apparent appetite among Tory MPs to trigger a leadership challenge, particularly against the backdrop of major challenges such as the rising cost of living, rising fuel prices energy and the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Some believe it was this broader context that helped him navigate his way and survive: he denied any connection to partygate, but the day after Gray’s report was published, his government announced a package of multi-billion pounds to help people struggling with the cost of living and higher energy costs, for a headline-grabbing day.
But there are also reports of a growing belief in the party that Johnson, who won a large majority in the 2019 election, could now be less of an electoral asset and more of a liability heading into the 2024 election. There are already signs of this in recent local government elections (the Conservatives suffered significant losses in May, when some party candidates sought to distance themselves from the national leadership). On June 23, partial elections are scheduled for two parliamentary seats held by the party.
A key theme in the current conundrum concerns the standards of British public life, long considered a benchmark in the Commonwealth and the rest of the world. The lowering of standards has been the subject of much discussion in recent months (Johnson also faces a parliamentary inquiry into whether he knowingly misled the House of Commons on the party issue in Downing Street). Many are despairing that for the first time in British history a sitting Prime Minister has been disciplined by the police for breaking the law (he received a fixed penalty notice for breaking Covid rules) but this did not lead to his resignation. Johnson faced persistent difficult questions about his relationship with the truth, but managed to overcome several challenges in the face of harsh criticism.
At the heart of the Standards in Public Life and the Ministerial Code are what are known as the Nolan Principles, or Seven Principles in Public Life, developed in 1995 by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, named after its first president, Michael Nolan, a former judge. The seven principles apply to everyone who works as a public office holder, including those who are elected or appointed to public office: altruism, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Any breach of standards should result in resignation.
But Johnson opened another front when the ministerial code was revised on Friday May 27, as part of the committee’s controversial 2021 recommended reforms that say ministers who break the rules in a “minor” way should not resign, prompting another barrage of protests and criticism that he is trying to “save his skin” and “water down” the standards of public life.
Under the new guidelines, ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will still have to resign, with the code saying: “It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to parliament”, but for the first time it introduced the idea of a ‘minor’ offense and sanctions ‘which the Prime Minister may decide to impose in a given case’; Penalties for violating the code could include “public apology, corrective action, or removal of ministerial pay for a period.” The government says it would be “disproportionate” for a minister to lose his job for “any breach” of the ministerial code. Since the responsibility for enforcing the code rests with the prime minister, the revised version in the context of “Partygate” can be expected to keep the line and Johnson in more titles for the foreseeable future.
The writer is a senior journalist based in London