The prime minister may soon have cause to reflect on the lessons of the greatest gangster movie ever made. Tom Scott explains the connection.
Boris Johnson’s sister, Rachel Johnson, once described her brother as “quite Sicilian” in his attitude towards loyalty. She was no doubt thinking of the Sicilian Mafia, and not just because one of the prime minister’s favourite films is The Godfather – in particular, as he told the Daily Mail in July 2019, “the multiple retribution killings at the end”.
Johnson’s fondness for the 1972 classic was not welcome news to its director, Francis Ford Coppola. He commented, with impressive prescience:
“I feel badly that scenes in a gangster film might inspire any activity in the real world or encouragement to someone I see is about to bring the beloved United Kingdom to ruin.
“I love the United Kingdom and its many contributions to humanity, ranging from our beautiful language and Newtonian physics to penicillin, and am horrified that it would even consider doing such a foolish thing as leaving the European Union.”
Shortly before Johnson seized the Tory crown that year with his promise to “get Brexit done”, the journalist Sebastian Shakespeare, an old acquaintance, wrote:
“Whenever I see him at London parties these days, we reminisce in mock reverie about our Oxford University days together before he always mutters under his breath the words: ‘Omerta, omerta.’
“This is a reference to the code of silence practised by the Mafia (and a refusal to give evidence to police about illegal activities).
“Boris says it half in jest, but also half in earnest. He expects loyalty from his closest friends (of whom there are very few) and the unspoken understanding is that their loyalty will be reciprocated.”
This has certainly been Johnson’s approach to ministerial appointments. Anyone suspected of insufficient personal devotion to Johnson or of lingering affiliation with any rival Tory clan has been ruthlessly excluded, not just from the cabinet but even from selection as an MP.
But as any criminologist might have warned the prime minister, loyalty in the criminal underworld is a somewhat slippery quality. There may be honour among thieves and this may remain strong when it comes to dealings with law enforcement agencies. But when the continued viability of a criminal enterprise is threatened by a kingpin who has been exposed as weak or incompetent, its senior underbosses are likely to be ruthless in getting rid of the don who has become a liability.
And that is the situation in which Johnson now finds himself.
For some years now, the Conservative Party has functioned essentially as a machine for turning power into money, and vice versa, for the benefit of crony elite. The way this particular cosa nostra works can be illustrated diagramatically:
This is a highly efficient system of swelling the coffers of the ruling party while enriching its backers at the expense of the public, but it is one that depends for its smooth operation on a certain level of discretion and restraint among its operators and beneficiaries. And it now faces a serious problem.
Johnson’s personal greed, hypocrisy, clumsy lies and sheer extravagance in overseeing the distribution of billions of pounds in government contracts to ‘VIP’ donors and friends of government ministers have made the workings of this machine all too publicly visible. And the public is increasingly disgusted and horrified by what has been exposed.
This is what Conservative MPs mean when they say “Boris Johnson has f***ed it.”
To add to his woes, Dominic Cummings, until a year ago Johnson’s most senior adviser – or consigliere, to use the Sicilian term – has turned against him and is now tweeting like a canary about his former boss’s misdeeds. Cummings himself no doubt feels a keen sense of having been betrayed by Johnson, who owes his position to Vote Leave’s law-breaking referendum campaign.
This is why the Conservative Party will almost certainly act to remove Boris Johnson in the near future. Not because it disapproves of anything he has done. His only mistake, from the Tories’ point of view, is that he’s done it too clumsily and been caught. He’s become a liability.
It’s not yet clear which of Johnson’s ambitious rivals will wield the knife, but this is now only a matter of time. And when it happens, Johnson will perhaps recall a speech by the mobster Hyman Roth in the Godfather Part II, in which he recounts the demise of his former friend, Moe Green, at one time the crime king of Las Vegas:
“There isn’t even a plaque, or a signpost or a statue of him in that town! Someone put a bullet through his eye. No one knows who gave the order. When I heard it, I wasn’t angry; I knew Moe, I knew he was headstrong, talking loud, saying stupid things. So when he turned up dead, I let it go. And I said to myself, this is the business we’ve chosen.”
Others, as they reflect on the behaviour of the Conservative Party, may recall the words of Don Vito Corleone in Mario Puzo’s novel on which The Godfather is based:
“I have no intention of placing my fate in the hands of men whose only qualification is that they managed to con a block of people to vote for them.”