Boris Johnson broke lockdown laws, doesn’t believe the rules apply to him and threatens the future of British democracy, Sir John Major has said.
In a stinging rebuke of the scandal-embroiled prime minister, Major said Johnson had sent out ministers to “defend the indefensible” and that he sees the truth as “optional”.
The former Conservative prime minister also suggested MPs have a “duty” to act in the face of threats to public trust – and remove Johnson from office.
In a speech in London, Sir John hit out at policies to limit the right to protest and “punishment without compassion” proposals to criminalise refugees.
“Our democracy is a fragile structure; it is not an impenetrable fortress. It can fall if no one challenges what is wrong, or does not fight for what is right,” he said.
‘Gullible or foolish’
And in an eye-catching intervention on Partygate, Major openly accused Johnson and his staff of breaking the law – and said the government’s response to the scandal was “distinctly shifty”.
“At No 10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws,” he said. “Brazen excuses were dreamed up. Day after day the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible – making themselves look gullible or foolish.
“No government can function properly if its every word is treated with suspicion … The lack of trust in the elected portion of our democracy cannot be brushed aside. Parliament has a duty to correct this. If it does not, and trust is lost at home, our politics is broken.”
Highlighting the botched attempt to save Owen Paterson from punishment for dodgy lobbying, Major said Johnson appeared contemptuous of ministerial standards.
“It may be possible to find excuses for each of these lapses – and others – but all of them, taken together, tell a different tale,” the former PM said.
“The prime minister and our present government not only challenge the law, but also seem to believe that they – and they alone – need not obey the rules, traditions, conventions – call them what you will – of public life.
“The charge that there is one law for the government, and one for everyone else is politically deadly – and it has struck home.”
‘Truth has been optional’
Sir John went on to highlight the need for openness and honesty in politics.
“Where governments fall short, candour is the best means of binding up support,” he said.
“But that candour must be freely offered – not dragged out under the searchlight of inquiries. If it is not whole-hearted and convincing, the loss of public trust can be swift and unforgiving.
“We have seen that playing out in recent weeks. Trust in politics is at a low ebb, eroded by foolish behaviour, leaving a sense of unease about how our politics is being conducted. Too often, ministers have been evasive, and the truth has been optional.
“When ministers respond to legitimate questions with pre-prepared soundbites, or half-truths, or misdirection, or wild exaggeration, then respect for government and politics dies a little more.
“Misleading replies to questions invite disillusion. Outright lies breed contempt. In our democracy, we are able to speak truth to power. But, if democracy is to be respected, power must also speak truth to the people. And yet, in recent years, they have not been doing so.”