Peter Franklin is associate editor of UnHerd.
Boris Johnson’s passion for the classics is well known. But unlike Emmanuel Macron, who once spoke about the need for a “Jupiterian“Presidency, I do not believe that our Prime Minister has ever compared himself to a figure in the Greco-Roman myth. The closest it got was something quite artificial. pun between “Boris” and “Boreas”, god of the north wind.
However, there is one character he could be compared to, and that is Hercules (or Heracles if you prefer). Johnson may not be as physically impressive as the muscular hero, but as prime minister he has tackled a number of tasks that can only be described as Herculean: achieving Brexit; defeat Covid (both nationally and personally); leading the world on climate change; leveling north. Whether no one considers Johnson a great man, there is no question of the greatness of the challenges he has faced.
Hercules is famous for undertaking twelve labor. Most of these involved killing or capturing some kind of fabulous beast, from the multi-headed hydra to the carnivorous mares of Diomedes.
However, his fifth job stands out from all the others. That’s because it seems to be so mundane. All it involved was cleaning a few stables. It’s not exactly legend stuff. Except these were King Augeus’ stables. They housed 3,000 animals and had not been cleaned for 30 years. Worse still, Hercules only had one day to complete the task. So what at first glance seems the least dangerous of all his work, he came closest to defeating him.
Boris should pay close attention to this story because he has his own stables to clean: the Houses of Parliament. In the space of just a few weeks, the “sleaze” has done more damage to his ratings than all his mistakes about Brexit, Covid, and the economy put together.
As with the original Augean stables, this almighty mess is the result of years of neglect, for which multiple Prime Ministers are to blame. It’s unfortunate for Johnson that things have come to a head during his tenure. On the other hand, he made his own bad luck by handling the Owen Paterson affair so ineptly. In any case, he now owns the question of squalor. Unless you can make it go away, it has the potential to bury it.
Of course, by international standards, this is a mountain of sand, not a mountain of political nuisance. We are not talking about criminal corruption here, but about the interpretation of the rules that govern self-imposed standards in public life. Yet that’s why this unfortunate episode is so infuriating – it was all so avoidable.
There should never have been any confusion about the rules on lobbying. There is an obvious problem with private interests paying a sitting deputy to do what has been chosen in the public interest.
Therefore, the rules should have been clear: absolutely no political consulting work under any circumstances. If they had been clear, then Paterson would still be a deputy today.
The government’s approach of clearing up clutter only after someone has gotten into it is not going to work. There are too many other stacks lurking. In fact, lots upon lots, because all these problems pose more problems. As our editor explains here, the Prime Minister finds himself caught between two factions of his parliamentary party – the “Red Wallers” and the “Blue Jobbers” – over the broader issue of MPs getting a second job.
This, in turn, leads to an even broader question: what are MPs for? – which has also been left unresolved for too long. And it doesn’t stop at the House of Commons either. Constitutionally, the House of Lords is a half-finished construction site abandoned by a long-defunct cowboy builders company (i.e., New Labor). It is a desperately confusing situation in which the combination of politics, patronage, public policy and money is sure to create more problems.
And that’s the problem with the government’s minimalist approach to cleaning Augean’s stables. Making very specific changes in response to a particular scandal exposes you to the accusation of having done too little too late when the next one happens.
The alternative is to get out in front of the problem and deal with all the mess before you bury it.
The question Boris should ask himself is this: what would Hercules do? I guess you already know the answer. Faced with the impossible task of shoveling so much, er, material in the space of one day, Hercules took radical action. He diverted the course of the Alfeo and Peneo rivers to flow through the stables and literally eliminated the problem. Work done.
The two cleansing forces that Boris Johnson must harness are constitutional reform and party reform. For starters, it’s time to stop making excuses to the House of Lords. It should become a duly democratic chamber or be abolished.
As for the House of Commons, let’s acknowledge the reality of what it means to be a MP these days. The old model of the gentleman legislator is just that: a relic of the past. With billions about to be spent on the renovation of the physical structure of the Palace of Westminster, we also need to update its working practices.
That’s both for the sake of the constitution and the Conservative Party. The current disparity between some conservative MPs struggling to cling to the Red Wall while others occupy lucrative outside jobs is not only unfair: it is also electorally unsustainable. The result of Chesham and Amersham by election, plus the latest set of local elections, is a warning that the party cannot take its southern heart for granted either.
In this age of political realignment, all the seats held by the Conservatives must be considered marginal. Therefore, each Conservative MP must commit full-time to his parliamentary and governmental duties. This, by happy coincidence, would also mean that the controversial question of second jobs would become irrelevant.
As we are seeing now with the rules on lobbying, reform is a question of when, if not. The government can be yelled and kicked into the 21st century, allowing the opposition to extract every ounce of partisan advantage, or it can take the initiative and lead the process of change.
Of course, it is up to any conservative to take care of the constitution, but that is most easily achieved when one is in charge of the course of events, not dragged by it.
So go on, Boris, be a hero.