At this point, the Conservatives seem to be playing a game of seeing just how much they can get away with. Each week brings fresh revelations of the party’s incompetence, corruption and deception – and so too a new affirmation of their emphatic lead in the polls. It’s as if the Conservatives’ popularity existed in reverse correlation to their aptitude for power.
Ministers blunder on with impunity, revelling in a level of job security most workers could only dream of. The government oversees a catastrophic mishandling of the pandemic, with Britain suffering the highest daily death count and the second highest death-rate in the world relative to population size, with no punishment. In fact, the Conservatives are being rewarded: on Thursday, the party is expected to take Batley and Spen from Labour, which would be its second by-election victory of the year – a feat unmatched by any other government.
The Conservatives seem emboldened by a belief that the consequences of their actions don’t matter. And with Boris Johnson as their leader, who could blame them? The prime minister’s entire career proves that neither competence nor a moral compass are required to make it to the top – a sense of responsibility, meanwhile, will only weigh you down. As the sociologist Will Davies put it in 2018, Johnson approaches public life “as a game in which he commits sackable offences as a way of demonstrating his unsackability.” Now, as prime minister, it seems he has instilled his entire cabinet with the same sense of fun.
The delayed resignation of Matt Hancock as health secretary on Saturday was a case in point. On Friday, The Sun exposed Hancock’s extra-marital affair with his aide Gina Coladangelo, captured on CCTV. The affair breached Hancock’s own Covid-19 rules on social distancing, but was made more scandalous by the fact that Coladangelo, who has known Hancock since their days at Oxford, was likely appointed – on a public salary – because of her cosiness with Hancock. What’s more, Coladangelo’s brother secured several NHS contracts for his private healthcare company after her appointment.
The most revealing aspect of the story, however, lay in the Conservative party’s initial response. For almost 48 hours, Hancock was backed by Johnson in believing his resignation was unnecessary. Hancock simply apologised for breaking social distancing rules, and Johnson insisted he “considered the matter closed”. Even when his resignation was belatedly announced later on Saturday afternoon, Conservatives framed it as a selfless act on Hancock’s part. “He has put his family and indeed all of us across the UK first, because he wants the focus, as the PM does, as we all do, to be on getting out of the pandemic,” Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, said. Johnson assured Hancock: “Your contribution to public service is far from over” (a neat insight, at least, into what constitutes “public service” in Johnson’s mind).
Perhaps, in light of everything else the Conservatives have gotten away with, the assumption that Hancock could continue on in his role makes sense. After all, Hancock himself had already survived much more significant scandals, from the disaster of “test and trace” – the flailing national contact tracing system which, with a budget of £37bn, has been “world-beating” only in terms of profligacy – to the granting of contracts worth billions of pounds to chums with no experience in the sector. One contract for test kits went to a neighbour whose pub Hancock frequents. In a leaked WhatsApp message, the neighbour appeared to acknowledge the corruption of the transaction to Hancock with a wry joke: “Matt Hancock, never heard of him.”
All of this has come to public attention. None of it has mattered. The Tories remain more than ten points ahead in the polls, while Johnson – whose lifetime of compulsive lying and dodgy dealings makes Hancock look like a saint – remains safely in post.
The openness with which the government now pursues its nefarious business shows the rallying effect Johnson has had on his party. Across his career, “Boris is Boris” has been the unthinking tautology deployed by colleagues and sympathetic commentators to excuse his actions, however dubious. Johnson now wants his loyalists – whether Hancock, Priti Patel or Robert Jenrick – to enjoy the same immunity: they can all behave like “Boris”, too.
This isn’t how a typical government acts – this brazenness belongs to a party that, after over ten years in power and led by a wannabe “world king”, believes it will rule forever. In this sense, while Johnson’s mishandling of the pandemic is, or at least should be, the most personally damning of all the scandals, his extravagant refurbishment of the Downing Street flat might be the most revealing: aside from questions of taste and funding, spending a reported £200k on home improvements – almost seven times the given annual allowance – implies a plan to stay there a while.
This is Land Boris: where accountability doesn’t exist, self-entitlement is everywhere, and duplicity is guaranteed. Once the realm of one person, it now applies to an entire government. Johnson and his posse are unmoored by any guiding principles or values beyond a shared belief that they belong in power and deserve to reap the rewards. Hancock’s resignation will do little to quell their confidence – on the contrary, they can draw strength from everything he was allowed to get away with.
Samuel Earle is a writer based in London. His work has appeared in the Guardian, the New York Times, the London Review Books and elsewhere.