Less than four years after he was elected Prime Minister with a whopping 80 seat majority in Parliament, Boris Johnson has not merely been thrown out of office. He has now in effect been ousted from his constituency seat by a committee of MPs, without having lost an election. On the other side of the Atlantic, Donald Trump faces federal charges that he endangered national security by keeping a stash of classified documents he should have left in the Oval Office.
Trump, who according to the latest polls is front runner to be the 2024 Republican party presidential candidate, is not the first former President to have held on to classified material that was not his to keep. He is, however, the first former President to be prosecuted for doing so. Trump, who many believe could beat Biden, may face a substantial prison sentence if found guilty.
Many Americans are uneasy about the prosecution of Trump, and not necessarily because they support him. As with the way Boris has been treated in the UK, many view it as a politically motivated attempt by his opponents to destroy someone that they fear they cannot bring down using the ballot box.
Politically motivated prosecutions have long been a feature of politics in certain less stable parts of the world. In Brazil or Rwanda or Malaysia, those that have lost elections get prosecuted on what some might say are spurious charges.
Until a few weeks ago, that was not how we did things in Anglo American democracies. Even the most corrupt and venal leaders – Richard Nixon in America
or David Lloyd George in Britain – were allowed to live with dignity. Now I am not so sure.
Both Boris and Trump trigger in their opponents a similarly deranged reaction. Instead of opposing them, their opponents set out to vilify and destroy.
Rather than accept that Boris Johnson, having lost the job of Prime Minister, might remain as a humble backbencher, penning the occasional newspaper column, his critics have driven him from the Commons altogether. Petty and petulant, the third-raters that sit on the House of Commons Privileges Committee have even demanded Johnson be denied the Parliamentary pass issued to all ex-MPs.
In their report, the Committee insist that Boris deliberately misled Parliament, without producing anything much in the way of hard evidence. Their report perhaps tells us more about prejudices of its authors than it does about the conduct of the former Prime Minister.
The irony is that there are so many things that Boris Johnson, like Donald Trump, ought to be asked to account for.
Why, like Trump in America who deferred Anthony Fauci, did Boris go along with the pro-lockdown public health officials? How did he end up imposing a lockdown that turned out to be as economically ruinous as it was epidemiologically unnecessary?
Instead of asking these, the real questions, Trump and Boris’ enemies are making them look like martyrs.
For all the attention and the outrage Boris and Trump attract, what, I wonder, did either actually achieve? Yes, I know that Boris Johnson broke the Brexit deadlock. But there is another way of looking at what happened after Britain voted to leave the European Union seven years ago.
Having headed up the Brexit campaign in the summer of 2016, Boris and other leading Brexiteers proved incapable of working together to form a government. As a consequence of their dysfunction, we ended up with the hapless Theresa May as Prime Minister – and the attendant attempts to overturn the referendum result. Ergo the deadlock.
Eventually Boris promising to break that Brexit deadlock won him an election landslide that allowed him to make Brexit a legal and constitutional reality. Even then the as yet unresolved issues surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol, and the miniscule progress made in decoupling the UK from the EU’s regulatory orbit, mean that Brexit is not as done a deal as is sometimes supposed.
As for Johnson’s other apparent big achievement, I am not convinced that further committing Britain to Net Zero will be seen as a wise decision in the future. In fact, alongside compulsory lockdowns, it may yet rank among the worst.
What about Trump? For all the sound and fury, what did he deliver? He made some strategically significant appointments to the Supreme Court, which could potentially
have long term consequences for the size and shape of America’s administrative state. In the Middle East, Trump achieve what many US foreign policy experts once saw as impossible with the Abraham Accords.
Trump gave America tax cuts, but without any attempt to rein in federal spending, he put America on the path towards the level of fiscal incontinence achieved by Joe Biden today.
There is a strong sense that both Trump and Boris could have accomplished so much more. Why didn’t they?
“The administrative state was against them at the outset” some will say. The permanent bureaucracy – or ‘deep state’ as some refer to it - was always going to resist some of what Trump and Boris wanted.
That is precisely why each of them desperately needed a phalanx of completely loyal, committed and – above all –competent staff around them. Instead, each of them presided over a court of chaos. Downing Street and the White House saw some decidedly odd choices of lieutenants.
To overcome the enmity of permanent officials, conservative leaders need to be prepared to recalibrate the machinery of government around them as a day one priority. Neither Boris nor Trump could see the importance of doing so, until it was too late. They could not even use the power of appointment competently, with Boris elevating ideological enemies and Trump sometimes not filling key vacancies for months.
As someone that worked in the early days of the Boris government on Whitehall reform, I saw urgent issues constantly allowed to squeeze out the important. Eventually the thing that was squeezed out was Boris.
Of course, it is not impossible that either Trump and Boris could bounce back. The events of the past few weeks have, if anything, made them more electable. Having failed to take on the administrative state first time round, I suspect a second term President Trump or Prime Minister Boris would not make that mistake again.
No wonder there are some people determined to make sure that never happens.
Douglas Carswell is the President & CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, one of the leading think tanks in the southern US.