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illustration by Hanna Barczyk

Some of you may remember a toy called Buckaroo, in which a mule was gingerly laden with all manner of mining gear until the burden became too great. Then the toy exploded, sending tiny axes and frying pans everywhere, and your parents screamed at you to clean that mess up.

This seems like an apt representation of Boris Johnson’s scandal-laden government. How many more damaging episodes can it endure before it self-destructs? At the centre of it all is the Prime Minister, who appears to be a cat with 900 political lives. Except this is one of those cats that likes to push mugs off the edges of a desk just for the joy of seeing how far it can go before it gets sent back to the shelter.

I’m at fault here, too: Those metaphors let Mr. Johnson and his government off the hook. Neither a toy nor an impish cat are responsible for the lives of 67 million people living through a public-health disaster. Mr. Johnson and his government are. But that’s always been the Prime Minister’s escape route, to be judged as less malicious than he really is. How can a clown be condemned for the erratic driving of the clown car?

Even the nickname of Mr. Johnson’s latest crisis, “partygate,” is strangely blithe and does not adequately describe a widening crack of anger and mistrust in British society. On one side of the crack are those fortunate enough to work at 10 Downing Street, who gathered with their leader for a “bring your own booze” garden party in May, 2020, at the height of the British lockdown. On the other side are the people who were separated from sick and dying loved ones on that very day, because they were obeying the rules. Those people have been describing their anguish this week, and you can feel it from across the ocean.

Partygate wasn’t even the only COVID-rules-breaking party the Johnson government indulged in, which makes me wonder what its plural might be – partiesgate? And it wasn’t even the most serious transgression. That dishonour would go to the Paterson lobbying scandal, or the cash-for-curtains scandal, which is not to be confused with the cash-for-peerages scandal. But all these – which the British press handily lump together as “sleaze” – demonstrate the contempt the Conservative government has for the average citizen, especially if that citizen is poor, disabled, or has the misfortune to be born in a part of the U.K. where the life expectancy is 10 years less than in Westminster.

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I first wrote about Mr. Johnson’s appeal – vanishingly elusive to the outsider – when I was living in London and he was running for mayor in 2008. Even then a journalist I interviewed sounded a note of warning: “There’s a very serious right-winger under this man’s charm and buffoonery and it needs to be seriously examined.”

I’ve lost count of Mr. Johnson’s blunders since then, all of them forgiven as part of an inexplicable upward trajectory. Well, it’s inexplicable unless you’re a very blond man who went to Eton and Oxford, or are possessed of a double-barrelled last name, or like to murder grouse at the weekend.

In short, the people with second homes get second chances, and they’re the ones who have been running (and ruining) Britain for the past dozen years. The ones who do not get second chances are those who have had to suffer through a decade of Conservative austerity policy, which led to the crushing of the national health service and slashing of benefits to the most needy.

Consider the damage done by austerity policies, followed by the Conservatives’ dream of Brexit, which is turning into a holy fail. For example, those cuts to health and social spending were linked to an additional 57,550 deaths in the four years after austerity began in 2010, researchers at the University of York calculated. The gap in life expectancy has widened in the past 20 years, so that a man in Westminster – let’s say his name is Joris Bohnson – can be expected to live to 84, 10 years longer than a fellow in Blackpool. The government’s own statistics from 2020 show increasing wealth inequality: “The gap between the richest in society and the rest of the population has widened over the 10-year period,” reported the Office of National Statistics.

Britain’s once-treasured National Health Service is now experiencing a crisis of “permanent winter,” as the Financial Times reported. The nurse who looked after Mr. Johnson during his bout of COVID has quit in frustration. Meanwhile, the slow-moving disaster of Brexit has robbed the country of the foreign workers who do its backbreaking, essential work.

So who benefited from austerity if millions didn’t? Well, the current guy, for one. Also the previous guys. Austerity was a means of sacrificing the poor to save British banks, so it’s pretty rich (in both senses of the word) that the overseer of austerity, former prime minister David Cameron, was recently caught up in a scandal involving his lobbying for a British financial services company. That company, Greensill Capital, has since gone bust, but not before Mr. Cameron had lots of chats with former Tory colleagues and “made around $10 million before tax for two-and-a-half years’ part-time work,” in the understated words of the BBC.

Unfortunately, there’s no zippy name for the lobbying-for-big-bucks scandal, because “business as usual” isn’t a catchy slogan. But if partygate finally does the job of making people see how far off-course Mr. Johnson and his predecessors have driven their country, then it’s worked. Maybe the clown car is finally headed for the ditch.

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