It’s over. A landslide squandered in three years. A new buccaneer could emerge from a Tory party leadership contest that begins today, but Boris Johnson has conceded after heaving Britain out of the EU and staggering through a pandemic that killed more than 180,000 people that the game is up.
Johnson announces his resignation today leaving a personal legacy as a serial dissembler, a party reeling from ethics and sex scandals and a country hobbled by the Brexit that swept him to power.
Two weeks ago he was talking of second and third terms, but his premiership, anticipated all his adult life, turns out to be one of the shortest in British history. The politics of bluff and bluster that served him so well in campaign mode has been found desperately wanting in government. For now, Global Britain and levelling up are slogans consigned to history.
The finale. A fever dream of defiance yesterday petered out overnight as the Johnson administration broke all records for ministerial resignations. There was a telling silence from Downing Street when it would normally have been fielding ministers for the morning media round. At 8.30am Johnson phoned Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the Conservatives’ 1922 Committee, to tell him he would be resigning.
Initial signs were that he wanted to stay on as caretaker prime minister until the autumn, but the party will be the judge of that – and the party has made clear it wants him gone post haste.
In the 24 hours before that call to Brady, 48 members of Johnson’s government including five cabinet ministers resigned. Michael Gove was sacked and called a snake. The attorney general announced a leadership bid live on TV. At least 20 ministerial posts were left unfilled and many departments dysfunctional. The number of Johnson loyalists in a parliamentary party with 358 MPs shrank to 65, but he clung on.
The question was why, and the answers say much about the man. Here are four, in reverse order of plausibility:
The country. Johnson insisted to the House of Commons and the parliamentary liaison committee yesterday he was determined to stay in post to lead “a government that gets on relentlessly with a programme of uniting and levelling up”.
The party. He delayed stepping down in part because he believes his successor will have to call a general election in which Labour and the Scottish National Party could lock the Conservatives out of power for years.
The Johnson view of power. He and allies endlessly cited his “mandate” and the 14 million people who voted Tory in 2019 as reasons to stay on, ignoring
- the fact that he operated in a parliamentary system rather than a presidential one;
- the fact that those 14 million voted for his party, not for him;
- the fact that he was prime minister because his party had a majority of MPs; and
- the fact that those MPs had turned decisively against him.
The Johnsons’ need for money. He’s divorced with at least seven children, on a prime ministerial salary of £164,080. He and his family are known to complain about money worries even so, not least because Johnson has failed to deliver a Shakespeare biography for which he would be paid a reported £500,000 advance. So he has been considering how to maximise his post prime ministerial earnings and may have thought, as the former Downing Street communications director Andy Coulson put it in today’s Times, there was “less drama and money in honour and decency” than in being dragged out kicking and screaming.
In the event his departure will be more dignified than that, but he will want to produce a memoir that flies off the shelves and will be well aware that David Cameron’s, with a damp squib ending, failed miserably.
What MPs said. They could no longer trust their leader. His lies about lockdown parties and his promotion of the proven sex pest Chris Pincher to deputy chief whip were indefensible on doorsteps and in the media, even for those who deemed the original sins marginal.
What MPs meant. They could no longer trust their leader to win them the next election.
- Brexit. Johnson backed Leave partly out of lukewarm conviction but mainly to cement his status as frontrunner to lead his party. He did not expect to win the 2016 EU referendum but having done so was saddled with its consequences as well as being rewarded with the job he coveted.
- 2019. He won the Tories’ biggest majority in 30 years on a promise to “get Brexit done”.
- Northern Ireland. Getting Brexit done required a compromise – the Northern Ireland Protocol – that he has failed to honour and which in its current form has paralysed devolved government in Stormont and jeopardised the Good Friday Agreement that ended the Troubles.
- Scotland. Brexit has revived the Scottish National Party’s drive for a second independence referendum because 62 per cent of Scots rejected it. Johnson leaves the UK less united than in centuries.
- Covid. The pandemic nearly killed him, and did kill more than 181,000 others, tens of thousands of whom might have been saved by a more nimble government response. But Johnson claimed and deserves some credit for the UK’s swift vaccine rollout.
- Ukraine. Johnson moved swiftly to help arm Kyiv against the Russian invasion and is considered one of Ukraine’s closest allies as a result.
So? Trust is still the most important currency in politics. What Eisenhower understood in his anguish over the U-2 spyplane crisis in 1960 – when he was revealed to have lied about not spying – applies equally to Downing Street in 2022.
Who’s next? Sunak and Penny Mordaunt, trade secretary and MP for Portsmouth, are the bookies’ joint-favourite to be the next prime minister. Javid is at 8 to 1.
And finally… Johnson admitted meeting ex-KGB agent Alexander Lebedev while foreign secretary without officials or security at the height of the Salisbury poisoning crisis, as previously reported by Paul Caruana Galizia for Tortoise.
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Photographs Dan Kitwood/Getty Images, Simon Dawson / Number 10 Downing Street, Ian Forsyth/Getty Images