The Returning Officer: Honeybun

Tom Taylor was a popular Victorian playwright as well as the fourth editor of Punch. His play Our American Cousin was onstage when Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth.

The Contested Election (1859) concerns a poll at Flamborough. The two usual candidates have agreed not to fight, eliminating free beer and vote-buying. This horrifies the election clubs the Blue Lambs and the Green Lions; they conspire with the corrupt attorney Dodgson to put up another candidate. The choice falls on a retired grocer, Mr Honeybun (“Vote Honeybun and no coalition”), whose wife wants to get back to London life.

Honeybun does not want to win and his putative son-in-law, Wapshott, stands to force Mrs Honeybun to agree to let him marry their daughter. The play ends with the match agreed but the poll still undecided.

This article first appeared in the 18 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The German Problem

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Theresa May is paying the price for mismanaging Boris Johnson

The Foreign Secretary's bruised ego may end up destroying Theresa May. 

And to think that Theresa May scheduled her big speech for this Friday to make sure that Conservative party conference wouldn’t be dominated by the matter of Brexit. Now, thanks to Boris Johnson, it won’t just be her conference, but Labour’s, which is overshadowed by Brexit in general and Tory in-fighting in particular. (One imagines that the Labour leadership will find a way to cope somehow.)

May is paying the price for mismanaging Johnson during her period of political hegemony after she became leader. After he was betrayed by Michael Gove and lacking any particular faction in the parliamentary party, she brought him back from the brink of political death by making him Foreign Secretary, but also used her strength and his weakness to shrink his empire.

The Foreign Office had its responsibility for negotiating Brexit hived off to the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union (Dexeu) and for navigating post-Brexit trade deals to the Department of International Trade. Johnson was given control of one of the great offices of state, but with no responsibility at all for the greatest foreign policy challenge since the Second World War.

Adding to his discomfort, the new Foreign Secretary was regularly the subject of jokes from the Prime Minister and cabinet colleagues. May likened him to a dog that had to be put down. Philip Hammond quipped about him during his joke-fuelled 2017 Budget. All of which gave Johnson’s allies the impression that Johnson-hunting was a licensed sport as far as Downing Street was concerned. He was then shut out of the election campaign and has continued to be a marginalised figure even as the disappointing election result forced May to involve the wider cabinet in policymaking.

His sense of exclusion from the discussions around May’s Florence speech only added to his sense of isolation. May forgot that if you aren’t going to kill, don’t wound: now, thanks to her lost majority, she can’t afford to put any of the Brexiteers out in the cold, and Johnson is once again where he wants to be: centre-stage. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.