On Saturday evening, a senior member of the government sent me a message: “I can’t believe this is happening. Where did we go so wrong?”
The use of the word “we” at least had the merit of candour. Too often, the persistence of Boris Johnson in public life has been treated as an invasive and unsolicited phenomenon, not least by Conservatives who, when it suits them, have wished to distance themselves from the disgraced former prime minister. In truth, there is plenty of complicity to go round.
Last night, a great many such Tories were hugging themselves with delight over Johnson’s decision not to stand in the contest to succeed Liz Truss. With the Big Blond Menace repelled, they could resume the business of restoring the nation’s economic credibility, rebuilding party unity and addressing Labour’s 30-point opinion poll lead.
At the time of writing, it seems overwhelmingly likely that Rishi Sunak will be the next prime minister: the first person of Asian descent to occupy Number 10, the second from an ethnic minority (following Disraeli), and an experienced former Chancellor of the Exchequer who, unlike the hapless Truss, has a keen grasp of policy detail, a distaste for recklessness and the much-needed aura of serious competence.
Still: before the Tories get too smug about their collective wisdom in keeping Johnson at bay, they should ask themselves how the possibility of his return to Downing Street even became an issue. As the juice drained from his campaign yesterday, it became almost instantly orthodox to claim that the former PM and his allies had been economical with the truth about the number of MPs they had actually signed up.
In his statement last night, Johnson insisted that “I have cleared the very high hurdle of 102 nominations, including a proposer and a seconder”, echoing the claims made earlier during the morning media round by Jacob Rees-Mogg and Chris Heaton-Harris. Certainly, the Johnson camp sometimes gave the impression over the weekend that it was playing poker rather than engaging in serious politics: that it had no more than a pair of threes, but was pretending to have a full house.
Clearly, the overwhelming surge of support that Johnson had hoped would follow his early return from the Caribbean – “Boris flies in!” – did not materialise. Nor, however, were the claims of his allies complete fantasy. It is important that the Tory Party not be permitted to strike from the record the fact that a great many of their number were indeed horribly, shamefully enticed by the idea of Johnson’s snap resumption of the premiership; only seven weeks after he bade farewell to Her Late Majesty the Queen at Balmoral.
Never let them forget: this appalling plan was publicly supported by the present foreign secretary (James Cleverly), business secretary (Rees-Mogg), transport secretary (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Nadhim Zahawi), Northern Ireland secretary (Heaton-Harris), levelling up secretary (Simon Clarke) and cabinet member for Cop26 strategy (Alok Sharma). Ruling himself out of the race on Friday, the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, also said he would “lean towards” supporting Johnson.
I have listed the government posts these individuals hold before their names to underline the point that the restorationist caucus calling for Johnson’s return was not a fringe splinter group. It sat – and sits – at the heart of government. Until Johnson withdrew last night, there were senior members of the cabinet who believed that his simple resumption of the premiership was the way forward after the resignation of Truss. Which, when you think about it, is quite astonishing.
In the event, their backing for the former PM was more than outweighed by the support given to Sunak by – amongst others – Suella Braverman, the former home secretary; Kemi Badenoch, the international trade secretary; Steve Baker, the influential Northern Ireland minister and former chair of the European Research Group; and David Davis, the former party chairman and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union.
As Baker said to Sky’s Sophy Ridge yesterday, the inquiry by the Commons privileges committee into Johnson’s alleged deliberate misleading of Parliament over partygate still hangs over him, and would have made his position as prime minister (again) intrinsically precarious: “I’m afraid whatever people would like to be true, we need to just ruthlessly face the truth as it is – and the truth as it is, is that, when that [Commons] vote comes, which it will, his premiership would implode.”
It was bracing to hear Baker speaking up so passionately for reality and taking such a stand against wishful thinking and post-truth. Then again: has not the past six years of Conservative politics and Brexitism, boosterism and the unfunded tax cuts proposed by Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng been marked by a collective disinclination to “face the truth as it is”?
From the pledge on the side of the Vote Leave bus to plough £350 million a week into the NHS; via the lies told to the Queen over the prorogation of Parliament in 2019; the promise of 40 new hospitals by 2030; to the claims that the UK’s disastrous test-and-trace strategy at the height of the pandemic was “world-beating” and that a “protective ring” had been thrown around care homes that were, in fact, Covid death traps for the elderly; the astonishingly shabby Owen Paterson affair; and the many government lies concerning partygate: the binding theme of it all, the leitmotif, has been a rebellion against reality, the routinisation of dishonesty and the desensitisation of the political system to “alternative facts”.
Consider, too, Braverman’s striking declaration in the Telegraph yesterday that this was no time to “indulge in parochial or nativist fantasies”. Very true. But what, I wonder, has happened to the Suella Braverman who, only three weeks ago at the Conservative conference in Birmingham, revealed that “I would love to have a front page of the Telegraph with a plane taking off to Rwanda [carrying refugees]. That’s my dream, it’s my obsession.” There seemed to be plenty of time for “parochial or native fantasies” back then.
My point is that Johnsonism is not an exogenous force. It emerged from the very heart of contemporary Conservatism and it flared up again dangerously over the weekend. At 6:15pm on Friday, the Press Association reported that Sir James Duddridge, International Trade Minister and Johnson’s former PPS, had been in contact with him. “He’s going to fly back. He said, ‘I’m flying back Dudders. We are going to do this. I’m up for it’.”
And there it was: “Dudders”. The trademark Wodehouse idiom, the jolly japes ahoy, Duddridge and Nadine Dorries referring to the prospective return of “the boss”. What larks!
And – like it or not – adrenaline coursed suddenly through the body politic. Johnson’s fans were thrilled that he might take up the reins so quickly. Those who were not so in love with the idea were no less captivated, checking their social media feeds with unhealthy regularity to see if there were any updates on the return of Sauron to Middle Earth (flying economy, to be fair).
The previous weekend had been consumed by the arrival of Jeremy Hunt at the Treasury, the ripping up of Kwarteng’s mini-Budget and the promise of a return to serious, stable government by grown-ups. Now, only seven days later, we were back in the Johnson theme park, riding the demented rollercoaster of one man’s unquenchable vanity and impermeable sense of entitlement.
To an extent, he had already won before he announced his decision not to stand: he was back at the centre of things, back in the spotlight, the Main Event that absolutely nobody could avoid. His toddlerish victory was that everyone was once again paying attention.
In his classic and prophetic book, Amusing Ourselves to Death (1985), the late American media theorist Neil Postman warned that culture was becoming a “burlesque”, and that the values of the entertainment industry would consume public life. The past weekend has been a case study of the descent foreseen by Postman, and one that should not be dismissed as bullet dodged, a lucky escape that can now be forgotten. The problem is structural, and the Johnson ascendancy has been its leading symptom, rather than its only cause.
Yes, he was seen off – as he was when more than 50 of his own ministers resigned in July to oust him from Number 10. But not before he had capsized the whole process of replacing Truss and presented himself, extraordinarily, as the solution to a year-long crisis in government for which he was personally responsible in the first place.
Nor has he really, definitively thrown in the towel. As in July, his statement last night was very carefully worded: “[T]hough I have reached out to both Rishi [Sunak] and Penny [Mordaunt] – because I hoped that we could come together in the national interest – we have sadly not been able to work out a way of doing this.” In other words, both his rivals selfishly and inexplicably declined his generous invitation to step aside and smooth his return to Number 10.
He went on: “You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament.” True enough – although whose fault is that, mate? This line was, in fact, a retread of what he said in July, when he scorned the Westminster “herd” and complained that it was “eccentric to change governments” given the 2019 electoral mandate that he regards as his personal property.
Never underestimate Johnson’s essential impatience with and disdain for Parliament. This is the former prime minister who tried to force Brexit through by unlawfully proroguing the legislature; who at the 2019 Conservative conference raged that “if Parliament were a laptop, then the screen would be showing the pizza wheel of doom. If Parliament were a school, Ofsted would be shutting it down. If Parliament were a reality TV show the whole lot of us would have been voted out of the jungle by now.”
Over the weekend, he yet again positioned himself – in this case, quite erroneously – as the Voice of the People whose authority had been challenged by the milquetoast time-servers in the Commons. This reflects more than personal irritation. It is what distinguishes a populist from a true parliamentarian; a self-styled exponent of one-man rule on behalf of the masses from a supporter of representative government.
To put it in terms of which Johnson himself might approve: in the late Roman Republic, the elite divided into “optimates”, the “best ones”, and the “populares”, those who claimed to speak for the people. In global politics today, we see a similar division, as old-fashioned institutions flail in the age of digitally-supercharged demagoguery.
In April the proudly illiberal prime minister of Hungary Viktor Orbán – much admired by the American Right – won a fourth consecutive term. On Saturday the populist far-right prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, was sworn into office. On Sunday the nativist Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, seeking a second term, faces a run-off against former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. On 8 November the US midterms will test – amongst much else – the continued strength of the “Maga” movement, and Donald Trump’s chances of winning back the White House in 2024.
The success of this interconnected worldwide movement has not been linear. Its latest setback was the jailing on Friday to four months in federal prison of its most influential guru, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist, for criminal contempt of Congress. In France, Marine Le Pen gets closer with every presidential race, but failed on her third attempt in April to win office. Johnson’s return to Downing Street would have been a huge morale boost to the global populist network, demonstrating, essentially, that anything is possible in the new world of political hyper-volatility and that, in the right circumstances, a deposed leader can return to power almost instantly. In the event, he came closer than many thought possible – but nowhere near as close as he needed to.
Is it all over now? I wonder if he is constitutionally capable, with his Churchill complex, of recognising that he has reached such a terminus. Bidding farewell to the Commons three months ago, he added: “Frankly, that is enough to be going on with. Mission largely accomplished—for now”. In other words: “I’m not finished by a long chalk and you spineless lot will see me again.” Last night, he played exactly the same game with his tantalising sign-off: “I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”
What the new prime minister – what the British polity – cannot now afford, at a time of economic crisis, desperate need in millions of households, and deep national anxiety, is a continued campaign by neo-Jacobite followers of Johnson. There will, trust me, be a betrayal narrative seeded and spread by his followers that the new occupant of Number 10 is an imposter, standing on the shoulders of a giant and his mandate. They will not give up the myth (for myth it certainly now is) of the Once and Future Boris.
Truss’s successor would indeed be wise to assemble a government of all the talents, on merit rather than on the basis of factional loyalty. The dire situation in which we find ourselves requires such ideological eclecticism, broadmindedness and resourcefulness. This is not a moment for purges.
But it is time for the Conservative movement – and not just the party – to renounce its infatuation with Johnson once and for all (“I know thee not, old man”). No more hints, no more maybes, no more parlour games or metaphoric billets-doux to and from the Caribbean to thrill those longing for some excitement.
Johnson was absolutely correct that this was “not the right time”. What every other Tory must now make emphatically clear to him – and, more importantly, accept at the deepest level themselves – is that such a time will never come.