I’m told, by a UK defence insider, that Boris Johnson “really gets it on Ukraine”. He understands this is an existential struggle, needing patience, proactivity and focus; that the war is the most important event in his life; and that it could easily escalate to large-scale conventional or even nuclear conflict.
The problem is, says my interlocutor, Johnson can’t seem to communicate this to others. Or to act effectively. As a result, Whitehall is not in any kind of war mode. Instead, it is jumping to tunes whistled by rival cabinet ministers to aid their own survival or to boost their chances of replacing Johnson. Grant Shapps launches a train ticket giveaway. Priti Patel announces a discriminatory and legally-indefensible plan to deport refugees to Rwanda. Nadine Dorries plots the privatisation of Channel 4. Johnson himself has flown to India to escape the reputational carnage, leaving his whips to fight off a proxy no-confidence vote, over whether the Standards Committee should judge if he deliberately misled parliament.
What’s clear is that Johnson broke the lockdown rules. And not just once. If the Met investigators deemed him a lawbreaker over 10 minutes at a birthday party, there are likely to be more fixed penalty notices – and Sue Gray’s report will inevitably find a culture of arrant rule-breaking encouraged from the top.
What’s also clear is that his personal reputation has been shattered by the news. The viral word-cloud from JL Partners, a polling organisation that let 2,000 voters vent in their own words about Johnson, said it all. The word “liar” stood at its centre, along with the words “resign”, “idiot”, “untrustworthy” and “buffoon” prominent.
And in case it’s not obvious how voters are linking partygate to the living standards crisis, one respondent put it this way: “He needs to be fired from his current role [as] PM. He has broken so many Covid rules and ain’t playing a part with helping the people with their bills and high cost living.”
But that’s not why he needs to be fired. Johnson needs to go – as soon as possible after the May local elections – because he can no longer lead the country or the cabinet. I don’t mean morally, but practically. The fact Johnson misled parliament is proven. His defence is that he was “repeatedly advised” that there were no parties and that the rules had not been broken. But he was there. So no matter what the official advice was (and there is evidence that Dominic Cummings advised him to the contrary), it was a clearly deliberate act – and could be shown to be so.
So the crisis Johnson has created is not just one of popular trust: by refusing to own up, apologise for the lie, be judged by the official standards body and resign, he has created a crisis of accountability across government. If further fines are issued, if Sue Gray finds Johnson politically culpable and if the opposition parties inflict heavy damage on 5 May, the cabinet will be permanently destabilised.
For, when it comes to Ukraine, the two realistic contenders to take over – Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak – demonstrably do not “get it”. Truss had one job in advance of the war: to communicate deterrence authoritatively and effectively. She couldn’t even remember that Voronezh is in Russia, and was made to look pathetic by foreign minister Sergei Lavrov.
Worse, Sunak has vetoed an increase in UK defence spending in response to the crisis, just as he vetoed the increase in energy spending that would be needed to accelerate the building of new nuclear power stations. According to the Sunday Times: “The Chancellor is unconvinced by Johnson’s belief that Russia will lose the war in Ukraine. He thinks Putin will still be there and that there will have to be a deal with him, and if that’s the case is it really worth the pain to the economy.”
There we have it: British foreign policy being undermined and countermanded by a multi-millionaire, who only entered politics in 2015 and who, until recently, regarded Santa Monica as his primary residence.
As a result, Johnson cannot mobilise the Whitehall resources, the defence industry and the people for the long, escalatory conflict with Russia, which will dramatically worsen the living standards crisis. Nor – because of Sunak’s ideology-driven resistance – can he mobilise solutions to the cost-of-living crisis itself.
The government’s ratings are plummeting. To its own surprise, Labour has overtaken the Tories on measures of economic competence. Even on defence, traditionally Labour’s worst-performing policy area, the party is now only three points behind the Tories, according to the most recent YouGov poll.
If there were a second-tier cadre of loyal and competent people, Johnson could reshuffle the problem of Sunak away. He could appoint a cabinet of war-fighters, prepared to tough out the cost-of-living crisis by borrowing Labour’s policies of a windfall tax and VAT cut, boosting defence spending and firing on all cylinders on foreign policy.
But there is no such cadre. Johnson eviscerated the parliamentary party of One Nation Tory talent through his 2019 coup. And in any case, the most reckless throw of the dice – the Rwanda deportation scheme – cannot be withdrawn. The battles it will provoke with the courts, legal profession and wider liberal sentiment have been scripted and must be fought, for Johnson to stand any chance in a 2023 general election.
Johnson has lost the ability to lead. He can evade and bluster his way through this week’s attempt to hold him to account, but he has no moral authority with a large majority of the electorate, including those who still believe in Brexit and would happily see the Royal Navy sink a few refugee boats.
If his main adversary were Keir Starmer, you could say: so what? Let the Tories bleed. But his main adversary is Vladimir Putin. We are fighting a long-term economic war, in which Putin holds the very weapon – energy prices – that is intensifying domestic discontent.
In the face of that, the UK needs a unifier, an alliance builder, a trusted communicator, an administrator capable of pulling Whitehall together around a single purpose. Johnson cannot do any of that and should go – for the sake of the country he professes to love.