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Why did U.K.'s Tories pull the plug on Johnson but Republicans still support Trump?


British lawmakers forced Prime Minister Boris Johnson to step down as Conservative Party leader earlier this month after a series of scandals and lies. Meanwhile, here in the U.S., most congressional Republicans continue to back former President Trump, who remains the de facto head of the GOP. NPR's Frank Langfitt explains why the two parties have responded so differently to very similar leaders.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: When Congress prepared to certify President Biden's election, more than 2,000 Trump supporters stormed the Capitol to try to stop it. But outside No. 10 Downing Street earlier this month, no one tried to save Boris Johnson. There were the usual crowds of tourists and school groups and former Johnson supporters, such as David Summers (ph). He's a retired cattle farmer from the English town of Penzance, as in pirates of.

DAVID SUMMERS: We need a little bit of a change. He's run his course. He's done some good things, some bad things. But these things come to an end. And hopefully, it'll be an improvement on the - when the next person kicks in.

LANGFITT: The Conservatives ousted Johnson for a number of reasons. For one, his tendency to lie about scandals became a threat to the party. Polls at the end of June showed 71% of people thought Johnson was doing a bad job. And 74% thought him untrustworthy. And that same month, the Conservatives lost two special elections for parliament. Brian Klaas is an American political scientist who teaches at University College London.

BRIAN KLAAS: The polls swung against the Tories the more that the scandals and the lies mounted. And an increasing number of Conservative MPs began to think that their seats were at risk.

LANGFITT: Meanwhile, in America, polls show a majority of Republicans still support Trump running for president again in 2024. David Dunn, he's a politics professor here at the University of Birmingham, says that's led GOP lawmakers to make a very different calculation.

DAVID DUNN: The Republicans still feel that Trump has support among his hardcore base. And for that reason, they are prepared to hang on to him, not prepared to cross him for fear of alienating that base.

LANGFITT: Four out of 10 House Republicans who voted to impeach Trump opted not to run for reelection, another lost in a primary. One reason so many Britons oppose Johnson is they're working off the same information about the prime minister's behavior. The United Kingdom does have a partisan press. But all major news media accurately reported the facts surrounding the prime minister's scandals, including the one where Johnson claimed his government had followed all COVID rules, even though his staff threw numerous parties that clearly violated them. This is how Sky News, one of Britain's private broadcasters, covered the story.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: As the allegations grew and grew, Mr. Johnson became trapped in a web of rule-breaking and half-truths and untruths of his own making.

LANGFITT: Brian Klaas says American coverage of politics is far more fractured and sometimes contradictory.

KLAAS: You have media outlets in America that are regularly peddling things that are fundamentally not true. And, you know, that's just not true in Britain.

LANGFITT: Consider how differently Fox News host Tucker Carlson covered Johnson's downfall. In this segment, a man identified as a former Johnson adviser named Thomas Corbett-Dillon said Johnson lost his job because he became too liberal, which isn't true.


THOMAS CORBETT-DILLON: He very quickly got sucked in by the sort of globalist agenda. He became woke. And then he fully signed up to this Greta Thunberg idea of the world is ending, which is not what the conservative people voted for.

LANGFITT: One reason British media are more reluctant to publish or broadcast false information is that it carries greater risks. The United Kingdom has no equivalent of the First Amendment. And the British government regulates media more heavily than the American government does. Again, Brian Klaas.

KLAAS: It becomes harder to punish lies unless there are clear standards of defamation, which are - frankly, they have a pretty high bar in the United States. In Britain, that bar is much lower. So you regularly have publications that get sued and actually have to pay out significant penalties when they say things that are untrue.

LANGFITT: It's also much easier to get rid of a British prime minister than an American president. The American people elect their president as a chief executive. The ruling party in Britain chooses the prime minister, who is first among equals. Parties here can force out a leader by calling a no-confidence vote. And parliament routinely has opportunities to grill the prime minister in full public view. As Johnson's government was collapsing, he refused to leave office. Fellow Conservative lawmaker Bernard Jenkin confronted Johnson in this committee hearing.


BERNARD JENKIN: Now, how much consideration are you giving to the prospect of your resignation?

PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON: I'm happy to tell you that I'm getting on with the job that I was elected to do. And that is what I'm going to do. And I'm going to...

JENKIN: So all these problems are, basically, somebody else's fault?

LANGFITT: Jenkin pressed the prime minister on whether he planned to dissolve parliament to trigger a general election just to save his job. Scott Lucas is an emeritus professor of international politics at the University of Birmingham.

SCOTT LUCAS: There's rules of the game of political culture here. And that, in the end, is what prevailed. Bernard Jenkin went after him. You know, and Jenkin is, you know, a hard-right Conservative, as far as I'm concerned. But there are rules that he adheres by. Those rules of the game, those aren't necessarily being adhered to or they're being eroded in the States.

LANGFITT: In addition, it's riskier for politicians in the U.K. to take extreme positions. Because of gerrymandering, most U.S. congressional representatives have safe seats. Districting is fair in the U.K., where more seats change hands in elections. In fact, a British parliamentarian is three times more likely to lose his or her seat than a U.S. representative. As Brian Klaas puts it...

KLAAS: Politicians that don't fear losing are politicians that never compromise. Most politicians in the United States do not fear electoral losses unless they are facing a primary challenge because they're not viewed as extreme enough in their own party.

LANGFITT: It's also a bit harder for politicians here to use scorched-earth rhetoric because of strict rules in the House of Commons. The language can sound quaint to American ears, but it's designed to prevent personal attacks and a complete breakdown in civility.


JOHNSON: I want to say how grateful I am to the right honorable gentleman for the terms in which he has just spoken.

LANGFITT: None of this is to suggest the British political system is superior to the American one. United Kingdom doesn't have a written constitution. And Brexit has accelerated divisions that many here think could cause the United Kingdom to break apart within the next decade. But Brian Klaas says, there is a lesson for voters on both sides of the Atlantic.

KLAAS: Elect politicians who genuinely are principled. And think carefully about the systems of politics that are producing the outcomes that we are seeing, because I think the biggest mistake both for Britain and the United States would be to simply blame the individual. They are products of a system in which the politics are broken.

LANGFITT: And, Klaas says, British Conservative lawmakers have done a better job of confronting the threats to their democracy than their counterparts in America.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.


NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.