This time it really is over for Johnson

The public can finally be certain they are free of the worst prime minister in living memory

October 25, 2022
Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo: REUTERS / Alamy Stock Photo

It wouldn’t be Halloween without a cartoon villain rising from the dead, and last weekend the most morbid storyline in recent political history spawned a sequel. For three dreadful days, it seemed as though the man who had been ejected from office three months earlier, after three years of scandal and misrule, was to inflict himself on the nation once again. Boris Johnson was back.

This particular horror story ended happily. After a weekend in the spotlight Johnson has craved all his life, on Sunday evening the ex-prime minister announced that he would not, after all, seek to replace Liz Truss. Incredibly, the ball had again come loose from the back of the scrum—but Johnson was not going to pick it up.

In his statement, Johnson wrote that he had been “overwhelmed by the number of people who suggested that I should once again contest the Conservative party leadership,” and claimed that he had reached the requisite 100 nominations, but had concluded that “you can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament”.

For once, Johnson may just have been telling the truth. Despite scepticism from many of his opponents (including from within the party) that he had cleared the nominations hurdle, the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs appears to have independently verified the claim. It is also likely, as Johnson noted in his statement, that party members would have endorsed him over Rishi Sunak in an online poll, even if Johnson trailed by a wide margin among MPs.

The simple truth, then, was that Johnson didn’t have enough support among parliamentary colleagues. The former PM may be venal and narcissistic but he is not stupid. He knew that if he won, some colleagues would resign the whip or even trigger by-elections, provoking more political chaos. He knew that he would be re-entering Downing Street at a time of economic despair, which even his phoney boosterism would not dispel. And perhaps most importantly, he knew that the Privileges Committee was likely to find that he had misled parliament over Partygate, with potential sanctions including a suspension from the Commons and recall petition in his Uxbridge constituency. Johnson’s ego can withstand political turbulence, but probably not a second ignominious defenestration.

Of course, this was not the first time that Johnson had led his supporters up to the summit of a leadership bid before abandoning them there. The same thing happened after David Cameron resigned in 2016, when Johnson was considered the frontrunner. After that it was Theresa May who resurrected his career by depositing him at the Foreign Office. A commonly forgotten feature of Johnson’s personal and professional life is how often he has sabotaged himself and been rewarded for it.

Until now, that is. This time it really is over. Johnson is going to earn his millions on the after-dinner circuit for as long as the banks and trade bodies can afford him, but his top-level political career is finished. Even if the Privileges Committee exonerates him, Sunak is almost certainly staying put and Johnsonite Tory MPs will finally move on. Even his supporters now feel that he has humiliated them. Johnson is yesterday’s man. He has left Downing Street and he is not coming back.

And yet this latest tawdry episode cannot simply be forgotten. A self-obsessed charlatan spent three years treating leadership as a game and the British people as its moving pieces, and just came within a whisker of reclaiming the country as his personal fiefdom.

All this is, first and foremost, an indictment of the man himself. It takes a new level of shamelessness to be ejected from office in disgrace and hope to march straight back into it. Every calculation last week was about himself, not the country. Indeed, the calculations almost certainly began earlier. Many of Johnson’s colleagues suspect that he wanted Truss to succeed him because he knew she would fail and create another opening. The fact he left office the most unpopular PM in decades never even seemed to occur to him as a problem.

Johnson pleads contrition and humility in words but never deeds. At a time of national crisis, while parliament was sitting, he was quite literally sunning himself on holiday. If a teacher took a fortnight’s break in term time to go on a jolly they could lose their job. Johnson’s contempt for conventions and rules is so normalised that his team did not even bother to justify it. He only seemed to be coming home at all because he spied a better opportunity to gratify himself.

And yet this isn’t just about Johnson. It is also about the people who, time and again, have enabled him. Over 100 Conservative MPs remembered what had happened just months earlier and chose to ignore it. Some of his supporters over the weekend had quite literally called for his resignation in July. For them, everything that had happened under Johnson could simply be brushed aside if it offered them the possibility of staying in power or keeping their jobs. Never mind the abysmal polling data on Johnson; they were going to believe not in science but witchcraft. 

Perhaps the most revealing moment came in a tweet from Susan Hall, leader of the Conservatives in the London Assembly. “It’s astonishing that #labour and #LibDems are desperate to keep @BorisJohnson away from PM position,” she wrote. “If he is such a disaster then surely they would want him to stand.”

The “astonishing” fact for Hall was that the opposition parties might actually put the national interest before their own. When it comes to Johnson, the Conservatives never have. They overlooked everything in their pursuit of power: the unlawful prorogation of parliament, the economic havoc of Brexit, the lies and law-breaking over the Northern Ireland Protocol, the vast death toll of the Covid pandemic, the instinctive cruelty of the free school meals policy, the end of the Universal Credit uplift, the Rwanda deportation policy. The only reason they didn’t overlook Partygate and the Chris Pincher scandal was that the public had finally had enough.

They have still had enough. People have made up their minds about Johnson and will not change them now. They know he is out for himself at the expense of everyone else. They know the joke is on them. At least now they also know that the worst prime minister in living memory will never trouble them again.