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7 July 2022

Boris Johnson’s resignation speech reflects his fantasy about his leadership – and himself

No one would know from listening that his government has left the country in crisis.

By Philip Collins

Boris Johnson has become the latest Conservative prime minister to be forced out not by the electorate but by the party. The colleagues who supported him overwhelmingly for the job have lost their faith in him. The loss of office is always a human tragedy as well as a political event – but in this case, it is difficult to feel too much sympathy: this was a statement made without sorrow:

“It is now clearly the will of the parliamentary Conservative Party that there should be a new leader of that party and therefore a new prime minister, and I’ve agreed with Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of our back-bench MPs, that the process of choosing that new leader should begin now and the timetable will be announced next week. And I’ve today appointed a cabinet to serve, as I will, until the new leader is in place.”

There is nothing in the perfunctory calm of these opening words to suggest that they have been dragged out of the speaker. This may be the last speech Boris Johnson will give as Prime Minister, but it is definitely the last speech he wanted to give. The first hint of buried controversy comes with the claim that the new cabinet will serve, as he will, until the new prime minister can be put in place. There hangs an argument: can a prime minister who is being deposed because their word cannot be trusted, be trusted? Will they do the political equivalent of carving their name in the Downing Street furniture before the time comes to go? Will Johnson even persist in the delusion, which he managed for at least 24 hours too long, that he might yet recover? His whole career has been defined by an ability to rebound from adversity. Not this time. 

“So I want to say to the millions of people who voted for us in 2019, many of them voting Conservative for the first time: thank you for that incredible mandate, the biggest Conservative majority since 1987, the biggest share of the vote since 1979. And the reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue to deliver that mandate in person was not just because I wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019.”

It is a risky move to talk about obligation and duty when the reason for your departure is the accusation that you have a sense of neither. The nature of the duty raises a significant constitutional claim, which Johnson has been hinting over the past few days: he wants to claim (and for all the criticism he is not wholly wrong) that the mandate from the 2019 general election is his. This was going to be his justification for staying on. Who are these impostors to depose me, the man who won the victory? In point of fact, this mandate, in a parliamentary system, derives from Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative Party not the man himself.

“And of course, I’m immensely proud of the achievements of this government: from getting Brexit done to settling our relations with the continent for over half a century, reclaiming the power for this country to make its own laws in parliament, getting us all through the pandemic, delivering the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe, the fastest exit from lockdown, and in the last few months, leading the West in standing up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. And let me say now to the people of Ukraine that I know that we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes. And at the same time, in this country, we’ve been pushing forward a vast programme of investment in infrastructure and skills and technology, the biggest for a century. Because if I have one insight into human beings, it is that genius and talent and enthusiasm and imagination are evenly distributed throughout the population but opportunity is not. And that’s why we must keep levelling up, keep unleashing the potential in every part of the United Kingdom. And if we could do that in this country, we will be the most prosperous in Europe.”

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It is inevitable, for a premiership that has been rudely truncated, that its achievements should be meagre. But there is more to the apologetic list here than just a short tenure in Downing Street. Really, beyond Brexit, Johnson has few achievements. Even Brexit is stuttering to a halt in Northern Ireland – the one thing he famously claims to have got done is not yet done. The pandemic was visited on his time in office, and he responded slowly and rather chaotically. The much vaunted programme of levelling up was so ambitious that it has barely started, and the Prime Minister had no real interest in the public service reform that is needed before opportunity can be made more equal.

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Note too how the final claim, that the sum total of domestic reforms can ensure Britain’s prosperity, is the answer to the charge that Brexit is going awry. From this passage, nobody would get the sense that Britain is in the throes of a crisis on the cost of living. Nobody would get the sense that the public finances are in dire need of repair. Nobody would get the sense that the government is doing next to nothing. It is characteristic of Johnson that he resigns with a good account of what is, in a word, fantasy.

“And in the last few days, I’ve tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much and when we have such a vast mandate. And when we’re actually only a handful of points behind in the polls, even in midterm after quite a few months of pretty relentless sledging, and when the economic scene is so difficult domestically and internationally. And I regret not to have been successful in those arguments, and of course it’s painful not to be able to see through so many ideas and projects myself. But as we’ve seen at Westminster the herd instinct is powerful and when the herd moves, it moves. And my friends, in politics, no one is remotely indispensable. Our brilliant and Darwinian system will produce another leader, equally committed to taking this country forward through tough times, not just helping families to get through it but changing and improving the way we do things, cutting burdens on businesses and families and, yes, cutting taxes – because that is the way to generate the growth and the income we need to pay for great public services.”

Here are the hostages to fortune. Here is the repressed anger; the opening salvo of Boris Johnson’s post-premiership personality. There are two parts to the legend that Johnson will subsequently seek to sponsor. First, the claim that only he can win. Johnson is putting down an investment here in a Tory defeat at the next election. These are hints of his subsequent vindication. Second, he is briefly setting out the attractive policies that his party will now miss. He knows that a significant fraction of his fractious backbenchers want old-style religion when it comes to taxation. He hasn’t ever provided it but he is, at the last, promising that he would have done. There is anger too in the image of “the herd”. A herd has no brain, no rationale. It is a sort of involuntary movement in which nobody is really thinking. The image of the herd rhymes with the claim that it would be “eccentric” to change leader at this point, as if there had been no parties in No 10, no Christopher Pincher scandal – no reason at all for this lunacy. It is a deeply unrepentant and churlish paragraph.

“And to that new leader, I say – wherever he or she may be – I say I will give you as much support as I can. And to you, the British public, I know that there will be many people who are relieved and perhaps quite a few who will also be disappointed. And I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.”

When he was a formidable political campaigner (and he was), one of Johnson’s virtues was that he did not speak like a politician. It is hard to imagine John Major saying “them’s the breaks”. It is hard to imagine any other politician saying that. In a way, this is how he has always lived his life and run his career. He takes risks and tries to ride out the consequences. In a way, he enjoys the game. Whether it is good for the country that we rear politicians who regard politics as a game is a separate and important question.

“I want to thank Carrie and our children, all members of my family who have had to put up with so much, for so long. I want to thank the peerless British civil service for all the help and support that you have given our police, our emergency services, and of course, our fantastic NHS – who at a critical moment helped to extend my own period in office – as well as our armed services and our agencies that are so admired around the world, and our indefatigable Conservative Party members and supporters whose selfless campaigning makes our democracy possible. I want to thank the wonderful staff here at No 10 and of course Chequers, and our fantastic prot force detectives, the one group, by the way, who never leak. Above all I want to thank you, the British public for the immense privilege that you have given me. And I want you to know that from now on, until the new prime minister is in place, your interests will be served and the government of the country will be carried on.”

This is as close as a graceless man can come to good grace. Johnson’s former chief adviser-turned-bête noire Dominic Cummings has alleged that his ex-boss cannot be trusted to serve as the caretaker while a new leader is chosen. Here is Johnson’s bid to stay in place for now. The suggestion that he might try to cling on even after the herd has moved against him is surely fanciful. Is there even a hint of self-knowledge in the recognition that his family have had to put up with so much for so long? Politics is the most brutal show there is for the revelation of character. Boris Johnson became Prime Minister at least in part on account of his character. He is now leaving office on account of it too. 

“Being Prime Minister is an education in itself. I’ve travelled to every part of the United Kingdom and in addition to the beauty of our natural world, I found so many people possessed of such boundless British originality and so willing to tackle old problems in new ways that I know that even if things can sometimes seem dark now, our future together is golden. Thank you all very much.”

One wonders what Boris Johnson has really learned. One wonders what he will ever learn. He will revert now to being the minor celebrity he was before he traded journalism for politics. He so desperately wanted to carry on the job he had always craved but the Conservative Party had other plans. It took the Tories long enough. Most of them knew what he was like when he took the job, and those that didn’t should have done. He leaves ingloriously, with a few barbs and the implication that, like Margaret Thatcher, the Tory party is discarding a proven winner. It has been a sorry saga, and with these words it draws to a close. 

[See also: Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative leader?]