As the cameras burped and clicked, as an aggravated nation watched, Boris Johnson announced that he was giving up. ‘Let us seize this chance and make this our moment to stand tall in the world,’ he said. ‘That is the agenda of the next Prime Minister of this country. Well, I must tell you, my friends, you who have waited faithfully for the punchline of this speech, that, having consulted with colleagues and in view of the circumstances in Parliament, I have concluded that person cannot be me.’
That was June 2016, you’ll remember, following Michael Gove’s similarly dramatic volte face. Johnson’s abrupt withdrawal was a jaw-dropping moment; nobody saw it coming. The press conference was supposed to be a formal declaration that he was running. That made it classic Boris: he simply refuses to do what people expect. That’s why, in spite of everything and everyone, he might now cling on.
Who says that Boris has to go? Almost all the media, that is certain – quite a lot of the exhausted public, too. Dominic Cummings won’t stop calling for a ‘regime change’ until he gets it. But Cummings, like Johnson, understands a key rule of Westminster thermodynamics: when the lobby hacks, the MP WhatsApp groups and the Twittersphere are all saying something, it is almost certainly wrong. When everybody pronounces that yesterday’s double resignation blow is surely ‘fatal’, it’s a good bet that there’s life in the big beast yet.
Of course, this article could be completely wrong. Boris may fall on his sword in the next few hours. It is increasingly hard to imagine how he staggers on with his dwindling band of gonzo loyalists, his wife apparently briefing unhelpfully against him, and a Conservative party in ‘open revolt’ – the headlines write themselves – against him.
But there is no iron rule that says a Prime Minister has to resign when his or her Chancellor and Health Secretary resign within minutes of each other. Even if there was, Boris Johnson would almost certainly ignore it.
Yesterday wasn’t the ‘et tu Rishi’ moment the political class so desperately wanted it to be. Sunak told Boris he had been ‘loyal’, but anyone paying any attention to British politics in the last few months can see that the relationship between No. 10 and No. 11 had turned poisonous. And Sajid Javid has ambitiously bounced around so many ministerial roles it’s hard to keep count: since 2013, he’s been culture secretary, business secretary, communities secretary, home secretary, chancellor and health secretary.
Johnson refuses to ‘dance to the tune of the media’, as he puts it. Insiders say that he is adamant that the biggest mistake a Prime Minister can make is to resign. He will continue to do. The more pompous MPs channel their inner Cromwell and cry ‘in the name of God, go’ – the more he’ll feel manifest destiny calling him to stay. It’s Boris vs the world.
The Tory party does dance to the media’s tune. It also joins in the instrumentals. In the coming days, if he refuses to stand down, it’s increasingly likely the party will change its rules and force him out. We aren’t there yet, though.
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