Euan McColm: The UK hangs its head in shame because Boris Johnson won't

No-one expects Johnson to do the honourable thing, but it's hard to comprehend why his boss won't sack him, says Euan McColm
Johnson has left the Foreign Office facing a dilemma over relations with Iran. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/GettyJohnson has left the Foreign Office facing a dilemma over relations with Iran. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty
Johnson has left the Foreign Office facing a dilemma over relations with Iran. Photograph: Daniel Leal-Olivas/Getty

Remember the good old days when Boris Johnson was just a buffoon, when the worst he might do was insult the people of Liverpool, grieving over the terrorist murder of one of their own, or lie to his party leader about scandal in his personal life?

Obviously, looking back, it was always clear Johnson was a liability, but he was such fun, with his Wodehousian affectations and his getting stuck on ziplines. So convincing was Johnson in the character of loveable rogue that we let pass such trifles as his agreeing to provide the address of a journalist to a friend in order that an assault might be carried out and his dismissal from the reporting staff of the Times for fabricating a quote.

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Former Tory leader Michael Howard’s decision to sack Johnson in 2004 after he lied about an affair did little to harm the Johnson brand. He became Boris or Bo-Jo, a larger-than-life figure whose appeal – as a brace of London mayoral election victories would seem to attest – reached beyond party lines.

When Johnson was all “inverted pyramids of piffle” and “wiff-waff’s coming home”, he provided a bit of colour, didn’t he? Admit it: when he bluffed and bumbled and grinned his way though Have I Got News For You, you laughed along, didn’t you?

I did and, in doing so, played my own small part in the creation of the myth of Johnson as some kind of national treasure, whose various outrages could be soothed away with a roll of the eyes and an “Oh, Boris”.

The Johnson mask began slipping some time ago. Behind that veneer of affability was a man who put his personal ambition before all else.

Johnson’s leading role in the Leave campaign in last year’s EU referendum was not evidence of his commitment to a long-held principle but proof that he would assume whatever political position he felt might help him reach 10 Downing Street.

There’s nothing new about politicians cynically adopting views in order to further their careers. In this regard, Johnson is just another tiresome little egotist the likes of whom clutter up the benches in the House of Commons.

But the majority of Johnson’s colleagues – even the most eminently dislikable of them – can at least put their hands on their hearts and say that they have not directly put the safety and liberty of a British citizen at risk in the course of blundering their way through public life.

Johnson could make no such assertion.

The Foreign Secretary’s entirely incorrect claim that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – currently in an Iranian jail accused of plotting against the regime in Tehran – was training journalists when she was arrested is already having the most devastating consequences.

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The Iranian state is now using Johnson’s words to support its case against Zaghari-Ratcliffe. Thanks to the Foreign Secretary, a British mother faces five extra years in an Iranian jail.

Had Johnson a single molecule of honour in his wretched soul, he would have resigned immediately his blunder became apparent. Not only that, he would also have spent every waking minute explaining to whichever media organisation would listen that he had made the most terrible mistake.

Sometimes a politician may be called upon to make a decision based not on cynical calculation but on what is the right thing to do. The right thing for Johnson to do was to resign. That he did not do so should seal his infamy.

More troubling than Johnson’s refusal to stand down as Foreign Secretary for endangering the safety and liberty of a British citizen is Prime Minister Theresa May’s inability to sack him.

Johnson’s offence is so grave that his departure from government should not have been a matter for him to decide, it should have been the decision of the PM.

The story among politicians and commentators goes that May is simply too weak to sack Johnson and that if she was to do so, she would face the wrath of his Brexiteer acolytes who would remove her from office.

Well, maybe that’s so. Perhaps Johnson’s defenestration from the cabinet office would lead to his installation as the next prime minister. But would it, really? And is that a good enough reason, in this instance, for May to say nothing?

This wretched excuse for a prime minister has made much in the past of her upbringing, how being the daughter of a vicar instilled in her certain values. If this is truly so, one wonders how May squares her own moral code with the fact that her Foreign Secretary may have helped consign a young mother to many years in an Iranian prison.

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Johnson’s weaselly clarification of what he said (there was a “misconstrued” and a “taken out of context” in his remarks to the House of Commons) only serves to compound his disgraceful behaviour.

Even the threatened liberty of a British citizen couldn’t bring Johnson to say and do the right thing.

It is surely clear to anyone – not least the UK’s allies and rivals abroad – that Johnson is not fit for the office he holds. Incompetent, arrogant, and untrustworthy, Johnson is a political big beast entirely without substance.

May never misses an opportunity to show how pitifully ill-equipped for her job she is (witness, for example, her failure to properly sack International Development Secretary Priti Patel for breaking the ministerial code by holding a number of private political meetings during a holiday in Israel, instead allowing her disgraced colleague to resign). So we should probably come to terms with the fact that there is simply nothing Johnson could do that would encourage the PM to get rid of him.

When May became Prime Minister she vowed to unite the country after the bruising EU referendum. Instead of that, instead of becoming the stateswoman the UK so desperately needed, she has lurched from crisis to crisis, squandering her authority along the way.

That Theresa May continues to indulge Boris Johnson is her personal shame and our national disgrace.