Johnson, His Fall

James Butler

An updated version of this piece appears in the 21 July issue of the paper.

Boris Johnson does not like resigning. Shamelessness has been his political watchword, and it has allowed him to cling to power through scandals that would have felled other politicians. His sole political resignation, as foreign secretary under Theresa May, was simply the first step in a successful campaign for her job. In 2004, when his lies about his affair with Petronella Wyatt and her subsequent abortion were exposed, he refused Michael Howard’s order to resign as a shadow minister. He had calculated that only a sacking would allow him to play the injured party in public. As his current series of lies unravels, it is harder to see where sympathy might come from, or what might stay his backbenchers’ hands. He is staggeringly unpopular, even among Conservative voters. He no longer has plausible patronage to spread around. Loyalists are fraying away from him. It seems inconceivable that the new executive of the 1922 Committee, which will be elected on Monday, will not change its rules to allow Tory MPs to dispatch him. It is over for Johnson, even if he is constitutionally incapable of facing the fact.

As for his Cabinet, the ministers who have not yet departed – Priti Patel and Liz Truss especially – remain in post partly to burnish their credentials as ideological successors among Johnson loyalists. That calculation, though, must be rapidly changing as loyalists evaporate, even among the panting mass of the Tory base: at some point soon, one of them will realise their best hope for preferment will be as a standard-bearer for ‘Johnsonism without Johnson’. One man yet to jump, though rumoured to have delivered an ultimatum to Johnson and perennially favoured by the Times (his former employer), is Michael Gove.

Nadhim Zahawi’s (likely very brief) tenure as chancellor may offer him a platform to formulate such a position, rolling back increases in corporation tax and funding whatever thinly veiled exercises in electoral bribery Johnson scrambles for over the next few days. The elevation of culture-war dittohead Michelle Donelan to Zahawi’s former portfolio at Education is a sign of the calibre of those still happy to rally to Johnson’s flag. The significant question is how much damage Donelan and others can do before Johnson’s successor removes them.

On the face of it, it’s odd that Johnson should be felled by the Pincher affair. There have been more significant scandals, such as the procurement corruption during the early months of the pandemic. Johnson has been caught lying countless times – about lockdown parties, his flat refurbishment, holidays funded by private interests, let alone the forty new hospitals or £350 million a week for the NHS. Chris Pincher’s history wasn’t unknown when he was made deputy chief whip in February: he features prominently on the spreadsheet of Tory creeps circulated among staffers in 2017 as ‘inappropriate with male staffers and heavy drinker + touched [redacted]’. Johnson is unlikely to have forgotten that list, since he featured on it as well. Number Ten must have known they were sending ministers and spokespeople out to lie, and many of the messengers, too, must have known they were relaying lies.

Perhaps some of the anger comes from guilt, a relatively rare emotion among Tory MPs; perhaps it comes from irritation at having to endorse so obvious a series of untruths. Some MPs will have been genuinely affronted that such a man was knowingly appointed to give them orders, though he is hardly an isolated case at Westminster. Some may feel uncomfortable at the thought that Pincher’s history might even have been a qualification for the job, a way of ensuring his total loyalty to the administration.

In any case, it was the last straw, with the added bonus that an issue of sexual ethics is a means of bringing Johnson down without drawing attention to more difficult ideological conflicts in the party: for all the media focus on divisions in the Labour Party, the splits in Conservatism are just as profound if better concealed. Easier for all to agree that, at least in this case, harassment and assault are the really unforgivable sins.

As always, the resignation letters are also job applications. They all begin with a ritual genuflection to Johnson’s magnificent victory and go on to express astonishment that a man who once conspired to break the legs of a journalist and was sacked from successive newspaper jobs for practising fraud on his readers turns out to have been a wrong ’un. Who could have known?

The implausible clean hands routine aside, Rishi Sunak’s letter in particular stresses his credentials as a mainstream Tory on public spending, heavily hinting at a frustrated desire to impose an austerity budget on the country. It’s an appeal to deep instincts in the Tory base, and suggests a pessimistic reading of Conservative chances in the next election, an expectation of having to fall back on the party’s traditional voters as the post-Brexit coalition, held together only by Johnson the fabulist, collapses.

Johnson will be desperate but has few options. A snap general election is vanishingly improbable. Comparisons with Trump, always strained, are especially wide of the mark when used to suggest some potential British knock-off of the 6 January insurrection: not because Johnson is especially fond of democracy, but because he has no supporters willing to go to such lengths for him. Having joked a fortnight ago that he was planning for his third term, he will soon need to contemplate life on the backbenches or out of politics altogether. There’s a chance that even the after-dinner speaker circuit won’t want to touch him.

For the opposition, these days are easy: Keir Starmer has convincingly portrayed himself as the anti-Johnson, dutiful and rigorous where the prime minister is slapdash and entitled. Labour’s task will become more difficult if the Conservatives acquire a new leader free of Johnsonian taint and geared towards respectability and responsibility. And the party doesn’t offer a convincing vision of what it might do with the majority Johnson is squandering: Starmer’s recent much-trailed speech on Brexit amounted to a vapid assertion that instead of doing things badly, Labour would do them well. The real fear for Starmer ought to be that a grey, half-competent successor to Johnson will make the next election a repeat of 1992 rather than 1997; despite a commanding performance in the Commons today, he shows little sign of being galvanised by such a fear.

A state led by Sunak, Gove or Truss with reforming zeal would be an unpleasant place to live. But it’s also damaging to be governed by intellectually deficient, personally ambitious, corrupt or simply uninterested ministers. Fewer ministers than ever care about their departments, as the internecine vortex of Westminster and dreams of a slot on Question Time suck in most of their attention. This has been especially true since 2016, though the problem is of longer gestation. It doesn’t entirely explain why Britain, after twelve years of Conservative government, is run-down, stagnant, expensive, underpaid, unequal, corrupt, socially fractured, backward-looking, hungry and fearful. But it doesn’t help. It will take far more than dislodging Johnson to change that.


  • 6 July 2022 at 7:31pm
    Michael Leslie says:
    I suspect one reason for his gluing himself to the No 10 doorposts is financial. Some ex-PMs go on to make serious money, but can you imagine pitching Johnson to your board of directors as a valuable addition to the complement? Will even the Daily Telegraph think it worthwhile to offer him a column? His divorce settlement is said to have cleared out the bank accounts. Donors usually want something for their money and there isn't much someone so disgraced can offer. Would he be solvent at all without the prime ministerial salary?

    • 6 July 2022 at 10:07pm
      Markku N. says: @ Michael Leslie
      Isn’t he going straight into the Lords?

    • 8 July 2022 at 4:15pm
      Robert Devaney says: @ Michael Leslie
      this is very true, plus the cachet of a Chequers wedding before it was kyboshed

  • 6 July 2022 at 7:40pm
    david newman says:
    What is it that you can't see the obvious?
    Are you paid to be blind about Labour?
    I am a labour supporter, but this statement below is absurd!
    "Keir Starmer has convincingly portrayed himself as the anti-Johnson, dutiful and rigorous where the prime minister is slapdash and entitled."
    Starmer is just as entitled and vague and slapdash as Boris Karloff!
    Refusing to back workers rights to strike,refusing to state his position on Brexit (deja vu ,Corbin).etc
    Labour are no more fit to lead than the nasty party .

    • 7 July 2022 at 8:21am
      Rodney says: @ david newman
      You may be right, but since it's bleeding obvious that the Tories are unfit to lead, shouldn't we give Labour the chance to prove they're "no more fit to lead"? Might make a nice change.

    • 7 July 2022 at 3:35pm
      frmurphy98 says: @ david newman
      "Are you paid to be blind about Labour?"

      Perhaps James is the only commentator who genuinely believes that about Starmer. Or maybe just wants to avoid being branded an antisemite.

    • 7 July 2022 at 10:01pm
      Donald Raeson says: @ frmurphy98
      You people just can't leave it alone, can you?

    • 8 July 2022 at 12:04am
      Graucho says: @ david newman
      As I recall Starmer was the author of Labour's bizarre Brexit position at the last election. A position that played no small part in bringing the so called red wall crashing down. I still can't decided whether he formulated it through muddled, incoherent thinking or if it was an incredibly subtle means of getting rid of Jeremy Corbyn by losing him the election.

    • 8 July 2022 at 9:30am
      MattG says: @ Graucho
      You are putting the cart before the horse. After the EU election in 2019 it was clear that red wall voters were indeed "patriotic and socially conservative". Their willingness to throw rational politics under the wheels of the oncoming train in favour of an orgy of flag waving gave Labour little choice and room for manouvre in a FPTP system.

    • 8 July 2022 at 10:06am
      frmurphy98 says: @ Donald Raeson
      Starmer is one of the most unscrupulous frauds ever to taint British public life. You think I'm going to join you people in pretending he isnt ?

    • 8 July 2022 at 11:14am
      Graucho says: @ MattG
      They had loads of choice. Telling Northern folk "You got it wrong and we are going to have a second referendum with remain on the ballot" coupled with "We will let the EU know that if the deal they offer us is truly awful then there is a fair chance that remain will win.", wasn't a good one at all. Get Brexit right as a slogan and proposing to hold a 2nd referendum with the deal negotiated vs, no deal on the ballot was a far better one. Portraying Johnson as a bodger who would sign anything would not only have been a profitable line of attack, it actually turned out to be the case.

    • 9 July 2022 at 8:15am
      Donald Raeson says: @ frmurphy98
      What I was referring to-I'm sure you knew this-was your silly quip about anti-semitism.

    • 9 July 2022 at 8:27pm
      bentoth says: @ Donald Raeson
      A quip, but not a silly one. History will look on the IHRA episode as one of Labour's lows. Johnson's lies didn't matter when was chosen as the Tory most likely to do for Corbyn, aided and abetted by a mendacious campaign from the right wing of the Labour party.

  • 6 July 2022 at 8:29pm
    Max says:
    One added bonus is more than enough.

  • 6 July 2022 at 9:36pm
    UKiwi67 says:
    I think a significant reason for Johnson being felled by the PIncher affair lies wiht the letter by the former civil servant Lord McDonald, whose brisk directness suddnly gave real confidence to those who always suspected that the PM's reported denials were untrue. And I also reckon that in some ways the worst of all this is that when I saw the first headline that No 10 deniess that Johnson knew about all this, I immediately had to think 'I just don't believe that'. Not the content, but rthe fact that it was a statement on the behalf of our ruler and leader. That is bad for the polity, and for democracy.

  • 6 July 2022 at 9:38pm
    Prof. jennifer Hornsby says:
    Indeed he has no supporters willing to go in for insurrection. The members of the Conservative Party elect the leader are not activists, and not organized. For sure they like to vote and they pay their subs. But (according to polling) they contrast with members of the Labour Party, in that they put hardly any time into working for the party.

    • 10 July 2022 at 11:30am
      OldScrounger says: @ Prof. jennifer Hornsby
      Money donated in millions by a few far from disinterested and surprisingly far-flung donors is more than ample consolation for the sparseness of best feet forward placing their boots on the ground, of shoulders to the wheel or even of noses to the grindstone

  • 7 July 2022 at 7:24pm
    Kam Sangha says:
    Ministers who resign from posts receive 25% of their salary as severance. One day is enough for a former Minister of Education to get over 16 grand. Michelle Donelan says she will donate her's to a charity. Johnson can take over 18 grand. Gift Aid par excellence. Why do we think there is something wrong with UK parliamentary monarchy only now? The folk who elected Johnson et al need as much time looking in a mirror as a felon trying to go straight.

  • 8 July 2022 at 12:57am
    Merry Gangemi says:
    Gargantua and Pantagruel. Donald and Boris.

  • 8 July 2022 at 11:28pm
    Simon Wood says:
    "Our future together is golden," he said at the last. He promised a "glorious future" about life outside the EU. This "golden" and "glorious" is like something from an old "Daily Express Annual of British History Triumphs" circa 1934. No-one talks about the future being glorious or golden.

    All along, perhaps he meant his hair. It was "code". It was a subliminal advertisement for his brand.

    I am finding the whole thing quite sad.

  • 9 July 2022 at 3:37pm
    charlesfrith says:
    Am I correct in stating that the Pincher is yesterday's news but the enabler isn't?

  • 9 July 2022 at 3:38pm
    charlesfrith says:
    Unlike the clown; Starmer is far more dangerous. He believes himself.

  • 9 July 2022 at 7:51pm
    Paul Baker says:
    I’m bemused and confused about Keir Starmer’s position on Brexit. In 2019 he advocated a 2nd Referendum which seemed to come from the blue. It proved to be very unpopular with working class Leave voters, perhaps especially but not exclusively in the North. I well recall the senior members of the Party giving it wide support. Now quite suddenly after nearly three years without, so far as I can see, any consultation, he’s advocating what amounts to a Johnson Hard Brexit - for ever!! PIt’s a total turn around (or flip flop if you like). This at a time when it’s said some 22% of Leave supporters are having second thoughts about Brexit and with little doubt many Remainers are being confirmed in their belief that it simply isn’t and won’t work. It suggests that the Labour Party will do worse than 1935 in 2024 as Leavers won’t believe the flip flop and Remainers think he’s gone crazy. I’ve no idea how the senior Labour figures explain or justify this bizarre decision; I’ve asked my local Labour MPwho was very enthusiastic about a 2nd Referendum , about how he sees this U turn but reply there has come none. When I exchanged emails with him back in 2019 he couldn’t have been more enthusiastic about the 2nd vote ploy. I suspect this comes down to choosing a Leader who isn’t really an experienced politician - but how can his senior colleagues let him do it?
    NB The worst result since 1935 was always a bit odd considering there two Labour Parties at the time. So 1932 is it?

  • 10 July 2022 at 4:27pm
    Albion Urdank says:
    David Newman says that Starmer refuses to state his view of Brexit, as had Corbin. Not true. He has explicitly ruled out going back into the EU; his mantra is to "make Brexit work." Brexit was really the culmination of a long train of opt-outs sought by Remain governments: Thatcher's and Browns refusal of the Euro; Major's abandoning the Exchange Rate mechanism; rejection of the Schengen free travel scheme; even Cameron's obtaining a concession to offer EU migrants a lower level of welfare benefit to discourage immigration. But the main opt-out was to reject, from the outset of UK's EEC membership, the idea of ever closer (political and constitutional union), which became the EU's core raison d'etre. Starmer is in the position of managing Brexit in an unsectarian way, in contrast to Boris, one that can re-establish cordiality with Europe. Good on him.

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