AFTER so much ghastly behaviour from Downing Street, can we ever get back to responsible government?

“Johnson’s ethics adviser Geidt quits” ran the headline at the top of the news.

I wonder if your reaction to this was anything like mine. I shrugged. Of course he’s quit, I thought; this tells us nothing. Boris Johnson is a liar – everyone knows that. We’ve always known that.

I even thought: why is this top of the news?

Over the last six years, we’ve become inured to the awful. Our Prime Minister lies and deceives – and we shrug. We have a cabinet that’s drunk on divisive politics and driven by self-preservation – and our objections fall like paper arrows. This is a government led by the ultimate elitist who nevertheless pursues populist policies stoking xenophobia and intolerance – and smirks at anyone who complains. We stand on the outside, knowing that our views don’t matter, and that the Prime Minister couldn’t care less.

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The longer it goes on, the harder it is to remember a time when politics was done any differently.

The past week has been abject even by this government’s standards. With the Prime Minister and his cabinet backed into a corner by the recent Tory confidence vote, they are throwing everything they have at placating Tory zealots.

First, they played the Brexit card, signalling their willingness to break international law by passing a Bill allowing them unilaterally to change bits of the Northern Ireland protocol they dislike, risking further dangerous instability in Northern Ireland and a trade war with the EU.

Simultaneously, they pushed ahead with a flight to take asylum seekers to Rwanda, even though a judicial review of the highly controversial policy, determining its legality, is not due until July. The European Court of Human Rights duly stopped the flight. You can imagine the back-slapping in Downing Street on Monday night as right-wing papers thumped out furious headlines they’d been fed about activist lawyers and “foreign judges”.

Europe, asylum seekers, lefties, they’ve all been monstered in a bid to Save Big Dog and to round it off, human rights law has been given a punishment beating, the Prime Minister even hinting Britain might withdraw as a signatory to one of the greatest legal bulwarks against despotism in modern history, which British lawyers wrote – the European Convention on Human Rights.

All talk? Perhaps, but never assume anything where this PM is concerned. On the altar of Boris Johnson’s premiership, there appears to be only one rule: if it burns, chuck it on.

And then the Prime Minister’s ethics adviser quit. Lord Geidt, a man noted for his upstanding character, made his move just when the PM thought he’d got the news agenda back onto favoured ground. He became the second of Johnson’s ethics advisers to resign, saying he’d been put in an “impossible and odious position” by being asked his advice on a government measure that risked a “deliberate” breach of the ministerial code.

The fact the PM was considering it was “an affront”. More will no doubt emerge about this latest outrage in the coming days, but it has swung the spotlight back onto the wrongdoer-in-chief.

Was this the worst week of the Johnson years? Well now, it’s such a crowded field: there was the illegal prorogation of parliament and misleading of the Queen, attacking the judiciary and jeering at MPs who feared for their safety in September 2019; the attempt to rig the parliamentary standards process so Tory MPs could get away with corruption and sleaze just a few weeks later; and of course the weeks and weeks of revelations and lies about Downing Street parties, for which the Prime Minister himself was fined by the police.

So no, this isn’t the worst week; it’s a pretty average week.

And that raises a question: can we ever again get back to responsible, considered, gimmick-free politics after the Johnson years? Because of course he will go eventually, but the louche, irresponsible and divisive nature of his politics is very unlikely to depart with him.

His tenure at No 10 has reset public expectations about how politics should be conducted, making it harder for other political leaders to disavow eye-catching populist policies in favour of moderate, considered, workable ideas. Johnson has smashed so many sacred cows by breaking the law, lying, going to war with MPs, over-promising and pursuing costly, impractical policies that fail the public interest test, that it may be impossible to go back.

In the dishonesty and railing against supposed liberal elites, the influence of Donald Trump is obvious, but the politics of divide-and-rule were on the rise in Britain before him. Sadly, the Brexit campaign appeared to learn from the independence Yes campaign of 2014 about goading and dividing the electorate, and misrepresenting your enemy (attacks on Labour as tartan Tories were as ludicrous and dishonourable as they were effective). Brexiteers also picked up a thing or two from the SNP about playing the victim in the face of an imagined oppressor.

Boris Johnson absorbed the zeitgeist and packaged himself as a music hall act – the pantomime fool – to disarm criticism, conceal his ruthless ambition and appeal to the hackneyed notion that “we Brits love a character”. Voters smiled, failed to do due diligence and we’ve been stuck with him ever since.

So can normal service ever resume? Do we have to have show folk now? Keir Starmer, a decent man with a decent political offer, has had the impact of a pond skater. That this reliable, decent and public-spirited man is chiefly known for inspiring a thousand “dull” jokes, is a depressing sign of the times.

Meanwhile, those who ought to know better have learned that dividing people makes for an easier win than trying to unite them.

Some imagine you can escape the populist flavour of British politics by erecting a border at Berwick, but the problem is already endemic throughout the British Isles and, I’m afraid, will be apparent in any future referendum campaign on independence. Even Nicola Sturgeon, who has built her popularity on being the anti-Boris, uses populist tropes by blaming the “Westminster Tories” for nearly all Scotland’s shortcomings.

Yet most people find policies they can support away from the hard edges of politics: parliament could have adopted a single market version of Brexit which could have united moderates on both sides instead of the hard Brexit they chose; we shouldn’t face a false choice between independence and the status quo when the best chance of building consensus is probably a federal arrangement; we shouldn’t be sending asylum seekers to Rwanda when people want to deter small boat crossings but preserve a humane asylum policy.

And we shouldn’t have to tolerate a Prime Minister who lies.

Over the last decade, whenever it’s seemed things can’t get any worse, they have. We get the politicians we vote for. It’s a vicious cycle that voters must break.