So it ends as it was always likely to end: as a disgrace inside a shambles, lost in a fog of delusion. Boris Johnson’s fate was sealed the moment he became Prime Minister. As was apparent to those who cared to look, nothing in his past suggested he would have the chops to be a successful Prime Minister. The manner of his departure now is wholly in keeping with the substance of his premiership. In years to come, we may wonder how it ever happened at all even as we do our best to forget it did.
This has been a low and embarrassing period in British political history. There have been failed prime ministers before and shameless ones too but few, if any, who can match Johnson’s inadequacies. Even his great election triumph was built on a false prospectus. As the votes were counted in December 2019, Johnson and his fanboys (they were chiefly boys) misunderstood the nature of the mandate he had been given. The Conservative victory was not based on any great enthusiasm for Johnson but, rather, on a deep, visceral and correct appreciation that Jeremy Corbyn must be kept out of Downing Street. Johnson’s support might have been broad but it was also desperately shallow.
He would have struggled even in more fortunate times and these, it swiftly became clear, were no such times. Those made by desperation may also be unmade by it and the fall is even swifter than the rise.
So, sure, Johnson got Brexit done in a manner of speaking but here, as with so much else in his career, what counted was the feeling and the pose, not the detail or the reality. Strip away the style and there was little substance there. Brexit got done, but to what great or ennobling purpose? Merely the girding realisation life is more complicated than anything which may be emblazoned on the side of a bus.
As achievements go, it was lacking and in any case only constituted the clearing up of a mess at least partly of Johnson’s own creation. To the extent it was cleared up at all, that is. A weary country wished to move on and if this meant putting up with Johnson for a while then, heavy as it might be, it was a price just about worth paying.
Entertainment is not enough, however, and a government of reactions, not beliefs, is always one liable to be shipwrecked by events. Covid would have challenged any government and few, anywhere, have had a ‘good pandemic’ but its early, tone-setting, months were especially grim in Britain. The vaccine roll-out was an undeniable success but easily accounted for as being the kind of thing governments are supposed to be good at.
A different government might have found partygate easier to survive – but then a different government, led by a more conventional politician, would not have had to endure partygate in the first place. ‘It’s the culture’ can sometimes be a lazy truism but, my, on this occasion it was obviously the correct basis for analysis. The Prime Minister’s evasions and untruths, his obvious disdain for the rules he was himself enforcing on the rest of the country, were so plainly unsustainable they sealed his fate. The question was not ‘if’ but only ‘when’.
Now, as it turns out. There is a grim irony, perhaps, in Johnson’s demise being triggered by another MP’s sexual indiscretions – to put it gently – but, again, it’s the casual aversion to truthfulness which really counts. Even Tory MPs, a thick-skinned bunch prepared to put up with plenty, found this too much to bear. It was the crushing realisation that there was nothing novel in any of this; it was habitual and, having happened so many times before, it was certain to happen many times again.
Ordinarily, we speak of fallen Prime Ministers in terms of tragedy; titans undone by their own flaws. Such talk in this instance is misplaced. This has been a black farce, not a tragedy. A lurid carnival that a wiser Conservative party would not have forced upon an unsuspecting country. A spell of contemplation on the opposition benches may not yet beckon but it is deserved.
Successes can be counted on the digits of a single hand with plenty left over. For myself, I can think of only two. The government’s decision to offer residency to hundreds of thousands – perhaps even, one day, millions of Hong Kongers is a bright star in an otherwise dark night. It deserves to have been more widely celebrated than it has been. If this existed at a tangent to all the boosterish talk of Global Britain it did at least suggest such a concept could, on occasion, have some meaning.
In like fashion, Johnson has said – and, importantly, done – many of the right things with regard to Ukraine. Rhetoric is not enough without the backing of action but talk is the beginning of action itself. Even his sharper critics should concede that, however much he might have used the crisis to bolster his own deteriorating political situation, the succour given to the people of Ukraine outweighs your cynicism. Government policy may be carried on by other people, however, and there is no sense in which our obligations to Ukraine outweigh the Conservative party’s obligations to this country.
This is not the demise of a government of squandered purpose; it is the disintegration of a government that never discovered its sense of mission. It existed to keep Johnson in power: no more and no less than that. This is an unsustainable basis for governance, however, and eventually even the slow learners have discovered this. What, in the end, did Johnson’s government actually want to do?
So, good riddance. The worst government of my lifetime led by the worst Prime Minister of my lifetime is finally on its way out. Brought down by its own aversion to clarity, candour and the truth; sunk by the character of the man chosen to lead it. A downfall that was both wholly deserved and, in outline if not in detail, highly probable from the moment it began. Leopards do not change their spots and it always required heroic dollops of wishful thinking to suppose Johnson could be a successful Prime Minister. That many of his colleagues indulged that wishful thinking is something upon which the wiser of them might now care to reflect.
Enough is enough but, in truth, that point was reached long ago and the sorry reality of Johnson’s premiership is that its endgame lasted rather longer than its pomp. Time’s up.
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