Boris Johnson has gone beyond the point of no political return

The still-unfolding Partygate scandal and Sunak’s Windsor Framework have deprived the former prime minister of any credible comeback creed

March 22, 2023
Both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak received Partygate fines last year. Image: Gavin Rodgers / Alamy Stock Photo
Both Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak received Partygate fines last year. Image: Gavin Rodgers / Alamy Stock Photo

This looks like the end of Boris Johnson as a political leader.

I write these words with some trepidation, given his extraordinary populist surge during and after the 2016 Brexit referendum; and the last four words are a significant qualification of the first eight. But the combination of Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework on Northern Ireland, and the unfolding Privileges Committee investigation into Partygate untruths told to the House of Commons (Johnson appears before the committee later today), have almost certainly put him beyond the point of no return politically, whatever his media career may still have in store.

How swiftly the end comes depends on whether the Privileges Committee effectively forces him to fight a byelection this summer in his Uxbridge constituency, which he would be virtually certain to lose. But even without an immediate execution, his seat will probably fall in the general election next year.

Even if by some miracle Johnson is still an MP in two years’ time, a depleted Tory party struggling to revive itself in opposition is not going to want to revive his leadership, which collapsed in ignominy and disgrace. And if a second miracle occurs, and Sunak wins the general election and continues in office, he is equally unlikely to call on the Old Pretender across the water.

Partygate decisively broke Johnson’s hold on the Tory party, which had always depended on his populism being popular. In truth, it had never been all that popular: Jeremy Corbyn was the Conservatives’ principal recruiting sergeant in the 2019 election, even in the so-called “red wall” of northern seats which had voted for Brexit and fell to the Tories.

However, Sunak’s Windsor Framework, reducing post-Brexit trade barriers with Northern Ireland, is as important as Partygate to Johnson’s demise because it deprives him of any credible comeback creed. His own inept Brexit treaty had to be renegotiated to avoid catastrophe in Northern Ireland, and this is going to be only the first of many Brexit shape-shifts, whoever is in power over the next few years. Only a motley right-wing rump of Tory MPs—and possibly Nigel Farage—will back him in both opposing Windsor and defending his trade-destroying Brexit deal against fundamental amendment as it becomes steadily more unpopular, unworkable and economically damaging.

The echoes of all this with the rise and—it now seems—fall of Donald Trump have been loud and unmistakable, in terms of both the populism on the back of massive public discontent, and the descent into governing incompetence and lawlessness. It’s worth noting that the post-Trump Democrats have been remarkably successful. The Biden administration, with its huge stimulus and investment programmes, has addressed the roots of discontent and kept the Republicans divided and in check. The moderate left now looks like the answer, not the problem, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Biden also made the right call on Ukraine, where Trump would have been more likely to appease Putin. The US president did so in tandem with Johnson at the outset, but not to the latter’s political advantage, as all major parties and leaders in Britain were equally united against the Russian aggressor and didn’t—and still don’t—need a wannabe Churchill to rally them. Neither Sunak nor Starmer is Neville Chamberlain. Boris is stuck in Churchill’s “wilderness years” of the 1930s—but with no glimmer of a return to power.