Boris Johnson does not like resigning. Shamelessness has been his trademark, and it has allowed him to brazen out scandals that would have brought down other politicians (and better men). Before his speech outside Number Ten on 7 July, his sole political resignation had been from Theresa May’s cabinet in 2018, the opening gambit in his successful campaign to take 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 that he resign as a shadow minister. His calculation was that only a sacking would make it possible for him to play the injured party in public.
His resignation speech as prime minister – more accurately, a speech promising to stay on as caretaker until the Tory Party elects his successor, a process which could stretch to the end of summer – came after two days during which his administration collapsed around him (there were 62 resignations in total). The night before he admitted defeat, he was still briefing to the press that his colleagues would have to ‘dip their hands in blood’ to get rid of him, a dark allusion to his perceived personal mandate from the British people. It is hard to suppress the suspicion that in some secret corner of his heart he still believes there may be a way back. Certainly, a man who once attempted to give his mistress a £100,000 sinecure will use his final weeks to exploit the patronage left to him. Resignation honours aside, however, it is over for Johnson, even if he is constitutionally incapable of facing facts.
The Conservative parliamentary party will now whittle the list of candidates for the leadership down to a brace of finalists, who will be voted on by the Tory membership. The 1922 Committee can choose to adapt the rules, perhaps to expedite Johnson’s departure. Nevertheless, the next prime minister will most likely be chosen by an electorate of two hundred thousand wealthy geriatrics and small-town Poujadistes, who nurture obsessions with Europe, taxation, migrants and other reactionary causes. They can usually be seduced into supporting whoever looks likeliest to cling on to power. The parliamentary part of the process is intended to filter out the more unsound candidates beforehand, though in today’s Tory Party it is harder and harder to make such distinctions and, with no heir apparent, ambition will kindle in strange places. After all, Johnson managed it.
Ministers who remained in post amid the blizzard of resignations must have hoped to burnish their credentials as Johnson’s ideological successors. Now, the likes of Priti Patel and Liz Truss profess to have stayed simply to maintain the government of the country. Those candidates who have been closely associated with the old regime must wonder whether it will prove possible to stand for ‘Johnsonism without Johnson’. ‘Johnsonism’ might refer to investment in crumbling towns, an onslaught on the regulatory state, sporadic nativism on the pretence of upholding sovereignty, nostalgia, technophilia, anti-woke demonology or any combination of the above, with a hefty spattering of deceit to cover the joins. However inchoate, some MPs will worry about departing from a formula that delivered an 80-seat majority in December 2019.
Nadhim Zahawi may be best placed to deliver something like Johnsonism: so far in his very brief tenure as chancellor (he took the job after Rishi Sunak resigned on 5 July) he has stressed the still undelivered promise of ‘levelling up’. Other candidates will claim that they represent a fresh start. Penny Mordaunt, a Brexit true believer, is popular with the base. So are Ben Wallace and Tom Tugendhat: on the liberal end of the party domestically, both are ex-military, creatures of the security state who would pursue a more bellicose policy abroad. The sheer number of candidates – among them the climate-sceptic, born-again Steve Baker and the uncelebrated attorney general, Suella Braverman – make a very speedy contest improbable.
It’s odd that Johnson was ultimately finished off by the Pincher affair (he denied that he’d known about allegations of sexual harassment when he appointed Chris Pincher as his deputy chief whip in February), and worth remembering that many who have since disowned him would be rhapsodising over his achievements still, had the lies been managed more efficiently. There have been several bigger scandals, including 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, not to mention the claimed forty new hospitals and the promised £350 million a week for the NHS. Pincher’s history was common knowledge: he features prominently in the spreadsheet of Tory creeps that was circulated among staffers in 2017 (‘inappropriate with male staffers and heavy drinker + touched [redacted]’). Johnson is unlikely to have forgotten that list, since he also featured on it. When they began their denials, 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 caused by this last scandal has its source in guilt, which must be an emotion rarely experienced by Tory MPs; perhaps it comes from irritation at having to endorse such obvious untruths. Some MPs will have been genuinely affronted that a man with Pincher’s record was appointed to give them orders, though he is hardly an isolated case at Westminster. Some may be troubled by the suspicion that Pincher’s history might even have been his qualification for the job, a way of ensuring total loyalty to the administration. In any case, it was the last straw, with the added bonus that an issue of sexual ethics provided a means of getting rid of Johnson without highlighting ideological conflicts: for all the media focus on divisions in the Labour Party, the splits among Conservatives are just as profound. Easier for everyone to agree that, at least in this case, harassment and assault are unforgivable sins.
As always, the resignation letters were also job applications. They all began with a ritual genuflection to Johnson’s magnificent election victory in 2019 and went on to express astonishment that a man who once conspired to beat up a journalist and was sacked from the Times for practising fraud on his readers has turned out to be a wrong ’un. Who could have guessed? Sunak’s letter in particular stressed his credentials as a traditional Tory on the issue of public expenditure, hinting heavily at a frustrated desire to impose an austerity budget. It’s an appeal to deep instincts in the Tory base and suggests a pessimistic reading of Conservative chances at the next election, as the more heterogeneous post-Brexit coalition, held together only by Johnson the fabulist, collapses.
Whoever becomes prime minister will face the hard choices Johnson avoided. It is likely Britain will enter recession this year. Despite claims that he ‘got Brexit done’, the unresolved difficulties over the Northern Ireland Protocol continue to have serious consequences at Stormont and for British trade. A storm was already brewing in the Tory ranks over Johnson’s (lukewarm) green politics. Post-Covid debt panics the Thatcherite faithful. Current energy costs herald an extremely hard winter. Manifesto promises of housebuilding and levelling up remain unmet. A full accounting would take up pages.
Johnson did succeed in strengthening the repressive state in domestic and border policing, and in weakening regulatory bodies of all kinds. Scholars have naturally pointed out that the vast personal mandate Johnson claimed in his resignation speech is alien to the British constitution, but it isn’t really alien to British voters: both Thatcher and Blair personalised their rule. Many of Johnson’s voters hoped he was maverick enough to bypass old barriers and transform the nation. But like many putative anti-system candidates of the right, his ambitions were smaller and more squalid once in office; he was interested in sitting atop the system rather than changing it. He squandered his 80-seat majority; the after-dinner speakers’ circuit beckons, if it will have him. Those Labour voters who chose to support Johnson’s Conservative Party will receive a tough lesson when it reverts to its old habits.
For the opposition, these are happy days: 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 Tories acquire a new leader untainted by Johnson and geared towards respectability and responsibility. Especially since Labour still hasn’t offered a convincing vision of what it might do in government: 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 fear ought to be that a grey, half-competent successor to Johnson will make the next election a repeat of 1992 rather than 1997; despite his commanding performances in the Commons, Starmer shows little sign of being galvanised by such a fear.
It isn’t just disappointed Johnson voters who have the sense of a nation asleep at the wheel. Britain under Sunak, Truss or Patel would be an unpleasant place to live. But it’s also damaging to be governed by intellectually deficient, personally ambitious, corrupt or simply uninterested politicians. Fewer ministers than ever genuinely care about their departments. They are focused instead on jostling at Westminster and angling for a slot on Question Time. This has been especially true since 2016, though the problem dates back further. It doesn’t entirely explain why, after twelve years of Conservative government, Britain is run-down, stagnant, expensive, underpaid, unequal, corrupt, socially fractured, backward-looking, hungry, tired and fearful. But it can’t help. Dislodging Johnson is just a start.
Listen to James Butler talking to Thomas Jones about Boris Johnson's fall from power on the LRB Podcast.