Sir John Major has said Boris Johnson’s “foolish behaviour” has eroded trust in British politics at home and abroad and accused him of breaking coronavirus lockdown rules.
In a blistering attack, the former Conservative prime minister, accused Johnson and his government of acting as though they were above the law. He questioned the prime minister’s handling of revelations of government parties held during lockdowns and renewed his attack on him over the Owen Paterson affair — an attempt to protect a Tory colleague accused of “corrupt” practices that backfired.
“At Number 10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws. Brazen excuses were dreamt up,” Major said in a speech to the Institute of Government think-tank on Thursday.
“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 every word is treated with suspicion”, adding that the handling of the so-called “partygate” had made the government “look distinctly shifty”. The Metropolitan Police launched an investigation into the lockdown parties in late January.
“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,” he said.
It is not the first time that Major, who served as prime minister from 1990 to 1997, has criticised Johnson. Last November he attacked the prime minister over Paterson, his threat to suspend parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Brexit agreement, and cuts to the overseas aid budget.
The former Conservative party leader also warned that lying in the House of Commons resulted in “consequences for policy and for reputation” but stopped short of accusing Johnson of doing so. “Deliberate lies to parliament have been fatal to political careers — and must always be so,” he said.
Major’s intervention came as the pressure further increased on Johnson on Wednesday after the Met said it would send more than 50 people formal questionnaires as part of its investigation into the parties.
The force is investigating 12 gatherings, but is reviewing its decision not to investigate a Christmas quiz in Downing Street on December 15 2020 after the Mirror newspaper on Wednesday published a photo of Johnson at the event flanked by aides draped in tinsel and an open bottle of champagne.
Johnson, who on Thursday travelled to Brussels to meet Nato secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, before flying to Poland, has in recent days sought to refocus the government’s efforts on the growing crisis on the Ukrainian border. Foreign secretary Liz Truss also had a frosty meeting with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Moscow
Major warned that the conduct of Johnson and his government had damaged the UK’s international reputation. “If trust in our word is lost overseas, we may no longer be able to work effectively with friends and partners for mutual benefit — or even security,” he added. “Unfortunately, that trust is being lost, and our reputation overseas has fallen because of our conduct. We are weakening our influence in the world.”
The former prime minister also accused the government of “waging campaigns” against the civil service and the BBC, the latter being a crucial part of the UK’s “overseas soft power.”
Major called for a rethink of how political parties are funded, arguing that the Conservative party was “too dependent” on businesses and wealthy donors while the Labour party was “in hock to trade unions”.