Scott Morrison isn’t the only prime minister ending the year with parliamentary problems caused by angry backbenchers.
Nearly 100 Tory backbenchers have rebelled against Boris Johnson reimposing pandemic restrictions and a vaccine mandate for health workers, with some speculating his leadership would be under threat next year.
The parallels with Morrison, who ended the year unwilling to even introduce his own bills for fear his backbenchers would revolt over vaccine mandates, are uncanny.
Like Morrison, the British PM’s problems are a direct result of his incessant lying. His lies about the Christmas party — possibly parties — held at No. 10 by his staff last year while the UK was in lockdown and tens of millions of Britons were unable to be with family — appear to have crystallised electoral concerns.
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Previously an obsession of the political class and commentators rather than of voters, who might have seen Johnson’s lying as part of his eccentric, boyish charm, lying about his staff partying when voters were enduring the misery of lockdown appears to have turned into a much more widespread loathing of his routine mendacity and denials.
His disapproval rating hit a record 64% in late November in the YouGov poll and this week’s Ipsos had Labour’s Keir Starmer surging as a “more capable prime minister”.
We can christen this “the Morrison moment”, when a serial liar tells one lie too many, or lies to the wrong person, or about the wrong thing.
For Morrison, it was lying to French President Emmanuel Macron — with a follow-up domestic lie about electric vehicles, and then a public declaration that he never lied, all in a relatively short period — that crystallised the widespread view that he is a persistent liar. That took the idea of Morrison as a liar out of the realm of Crikey and Dennis Atkins ‘ columns — the only people willing to call out Morrison’s lies until recently — into the rest of the media and into voters’ consciousness.
It also crystallised in the minds of Morrison’s backbenchers that his blithe assurances could no longer be trusted. That’s why backbench rebels like anti-vaxxers Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic couldn’t be talked around to calling off their boycott of Morrison’s legislation.
In Johnson’s case, backbenchers now say they simply don’t believe him as trust between the PM who led the Tories to a massive win in 2019 and his backbench vanishes.
The other parallel between Morrison and Johnson is sleaze.
If Morrison leads the most corrupt government in Australian federal history, Johnson leads one of the most corrupt in a century, with regular accusations of government contracts for Tory donors and a scandal about the renovation of Johnson’s prime ministerial flat.
The Owen Paterson scandal — in which a Tory MP blatantly lobbied for companies that paid him, and Johnson attempted to protect him — also seemed to focus widespread sentiment on the return of the sleaze factor to British politics. Part of Johnson’s response to that was to send out his ministers to undermine the independent parliamentary commissioner for standards, in a manner similar to Morrison’s attacks on the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption.
Both Johnson and Morrison have demonstrated a capacity to bounce back from low points, often with the aid of a compliant media that is reluctant to go too far in calling out even the most aberrant behaviour, as we saw with the supine media response to Morrison’s ICAC attacks.
But for the moment, no lie is enough to dig them out of the hole each is in.