Three years ago, imagine that you had wanted to write a film script about a prime minister and his travails. By some coincidence, your draft bore a close relationship to Boris Johnson’s character and recent developments. We know the outcome. You would have been laughed out of the producer’s office. ‘Some of this is quite amusing,’ you would have been told. ‘You clearly have a talent for slapstick. But you have none for verisimilitude. You are writing about the head of government of a serious country, at a time of great events and challenges, at home and abroad. And this is how you portray the PM and 10 Downing Street? Donnez-moi un break.
How long a break? In the last few hours, Boris may have been granted a stay of execution. When Shakespeare’s Julius Caesaris staged, there has always been a problem. How does the director give all those conspirators the room to sink their daggers into Caesar without the stage becoming hopelessly overcrowded? So can Sue Gray and Scotland Yard do their knife-work without tripping over each other and if not, how long a delay will be necessary? The theatre of the absurd has seized control of the government.
Wise Tories should be desperate to resume normal service, under a new leader.
If any Tory MPs are still in doubt as to whether there ought to be a vote of confidence in the PM, they should turn the question around. Why should anyone have any confidence in Boris?
A little over two years ago, he appeared to have an unchallenged mastery of the political battlefield. He had an impregnable majority. The Liberals were irrelevant. Labour was likely to be afflicted by long Corbyn. Above all, Brexit was done. He would be the first Tory leader for more than 50 years who did not have to worry about the threat of Euro-inspired assassination. He had the power. All he needed to do was to work out how to use it. That was, is, and ever will be beyond him.
It is an irony that a cake is at the core of his troubles: the first time this has happened to a major political figure since Rasputin. It should also remind us of Boris’s only venture into political philosophy. His one, he told us, was: ‘have cake, eat cake.’ But the cake fought back.
More than the party games in Downing Street, it is the absence of a plan and the impossibility of his ever coming up with one which makes Boris unfit to be Prime Minister. But that incompetence is related to his most important moral defects: selfishness and dishonesty. This is a man who has absolutely no interest in any other human being on earth, except as a means of his own gratification. It follows that he has no insight into the abilities and character of his political colleagues: no ability to assess their strengths, and weaknesses, in order to decide whether they are up to being a minister. He is solely interested in loyalty.
Hence the promotion of Nadine Dorries, one of the least able ministers in political history. He does not even seem to realise that by giving her a prominent role in his campaign, he brings further discredit upon himself – if that is possible.
He has one distinguished supporter in Jacob Rees-Mogg. But that may not do him much good, for two reasons. First, underneath the delightful self-deprecation, Jacob is an ironist with a moral depth based on his devout Catholicism. A depressing number of his colleagues, failing to appreciate that, have concluded that he is just a caricature toff. Second, a number of those who do like and admire Jacob do not believe that his support for Boris is sincere. They give insufficient weight to his belief in loyalty. If he felt unable to be loyal to his leader, he would feel obliged to resign from the government.
As well as his selfishness, Boris is a stranger to truth. To him, truth is always and only a matter of convenience. ‘A word means just what I choose it to mean’ said Humpty Dumpty. Humpty Boris would say the same the about truth. The idea that truth ought to be rooted in facts and that Monday’s truth should still apply on Tuesday is wholly alien to him. Tell whatever lie you need to get out of the day’s hole. A new day, a new hole: what does he do? Easy: a new lie. Over the years, that has served him surprisingly well. For a start, many women have fallen for it. But he is unlikely to be able to add Sue Gray and Cressida Dick to his list of conquests.
In the meantime, as he waits for judgment, his party suffers. But a lot of Tory MPs do believe that once he is gone, it will be far from impossible to remove the taint and de-trash the brand. That could well be true. Boris should never have been prime minister. Indeed, he should never have been any sort of minister, or even an MP. When Andrew Mitchell, then the vice-chairman in charge, allowed Boris to join the candidates’ list, he was summoned by John Major, then Prime Minister. Sir John did not waste time: ‘Why the fuck did you allow Boris Johnson on to the candidates’ list?’ That PM was right.
Yet Boris’s unique defects could help his party to recover its reputation. Labour will of course try to claim that all Tories are like Boris. Fortunately for the Tory party, that assertion is not credible. Few voters are likely to be deceived. Post-Boris, it should be easy for serious Tories to tell the truth. ‘We were horrified at the prospect of a Corbyn government’ they should say, ‘so we chose our most powerful electoral warhead. That worked, but it subsequently transpired that although Boris was good at winning elections, he was unable to Govern properly. You got rid of Mr Corbyn. We have now got rid of Mr Johnson.’
That explanation has one uncommon advantage. It happens to be true. After Boris, many people will be surprised when the truth is told. So could be a successful tactic, as well as an honourable one.
Moreover, there is one point on which Tories should rest easy. Once Boris leaves No. 10, he will have no interest in the Tory party. It would no longer be a source of cash, girlfriends or wallpaper. He would certainly do nothing to help his former associates, but why should he bother to harm them? What would be in it for him?
It is preposterous to think that he could be a second Lady Thatcher, haunting his successors and disrupting party unity. Boris is no more Margaret Thatcher than he is Winston Churchill. The Conservative party can safely dispense with him and open the road to recovery. It cannot safely retain him. That too would open a road – to Keir Starmer.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.