Johnson, His Fall
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.