The Caretaker

Sadakat Kadri

Boris Johnson’s announcement that he would be stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party was characteristically combative. Extolling his own leadership, he didn’t even pretend to acknowledge his flaws. All he offered to explain his resignation was blame. A ‘herd mentality’ among ‘eccentric’ opponents in the party had made it inevitable.

The effort to duck responsibility isn’t entirely nonsensical. The colleagues who have spent years enabling Johnson’s mismanagement and duplicity deserve to share his discredit. But the distance that has belatedly separated him from his party arises from egotism, not principle, and it reflects the opportunism that has characterised his career. While he enjoys wielding power, he despises institutions designed to channel and control its exercise.

That dangerous dichotomy has informed Johnson’s policy choices from Brexit onwards. It’s the reason he was prepared to prorogue Parliament, for example, and it explains his contempt for legal limitations and ‘leftie lawyers’. The ludicrous suggestion that he continue as a ‘caretaker’ prime minister now threatens to do yet more damage. Johnson is no more likely to take care of his office than Donald Trump was in January 2021. It is incontrovertibly true – because fifty resignation letters say so – that he has lost the sense of political perspective that once made him so successful. The remorselessness on display outside 10 Downing Street yesterday compounds the implicit risk. Why shouldn’t he seek revenge? What’s to stop constitutional proprieties from being tested again – this time to breaking point?

We’ll soon find out. The 1922 Committee could easily knock the caretaker fantasy on the head. If it doesn’t do so next week, the prime minister will be assured of one last wild summer. But whatever happens, he won’t be happy. As Rachel Johnson observed soon after her brother led the Conservative Party to its last election victory, he once hoped for greatness. ‘An abbreviated tenure in Downing Street’ would be a bad outcome for him, she wrote. ‘A win is being hailed as the next Churchill’ and ‘a ten-year term’.

Even then, however, the prime minister might have suspected the destruction to come. Though his boosterism is instinctive, he’s no more optimistic than he is idealistic – and the hunger for power comes with an awareness of its fragility. It’s well known that Johnson as a child used to fantasise about being ‘world king’, but his adult notions of kingship have a very dark downside. Reflecting on the downfall of another proven liar, the Tory MP Jonathan Aitken, he once observed that:

Politics is a constant repetition, in cycles of varying length, of one of the oldest myths in human culture, of how we make kings for our societies, and how after a while we kill them to achieve a kind of rebirth. Some are innocent [and] some are less innocent … It doesn’t really matter. They must die.

The idea that rulers sometimes serve their subjects as sacrifices originated more than a century ago (perhaps The Golden Bough is mandatory reading at Eton?), but it’s cutting-edge stuff by Johnsonian standards. Once he’s finally dragged off the political stage, it will probably be recycled in a hastily published memoir to explain his departure from office. There’ll be other melodramas to describe too – like Churchill, he’s being expelled into the political wilderness as war clouds loom – but it’s hard to imagine any better political obituary for our departing prime minister than his apology for Aitken. Ignoring questions of accountability and responsibility, it suggests that no one suffers more from power than those who wield it. In defeat, as far as Johnson is concerned, he has become the biggest victim of them all.