Boris Johnson has resigned as leader of the Conservative Party. He plans to continue to serve as Prime Minister until a new leader is elected in the autumn. In other words, Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister. This is not a satisfactory situation for many Conservative MPs, the government or the country.
There are three objections to the Prime Minister’s plan. The first is that he will find a way out of the current predicament – that the greased piglet may be en route to the abattoir, but he remains just as slippery as ever. On this question, I am an optimist. Talk of calling a general election never had credibility – it was a ploy to frighten gullible backbenchers into believing that the cost of removing Johnson would be immediate electoral catastrophe. Looked at rationally, the prospects for a prime minister who has lost the confidence of their parliamentary party are bleak.
The second argument is that the problem is not that Johnson can escape his fate but that he might think he can. Dominic Cummings put it pithily: “I know that guy & I’m telling you – he doesn’t think it’s over, he’s thinking ‘there’s a war, weird shit happens in a war, play for time play for time, I can still get out of this, I got a mandate, members love me, get to September…’ If MPs leave him in situ there’ll be CARNAGE.” This was written before the Prime Minister’s resignation speech but nothing in Johnson’s tone contradicted Cummings’s assessment.
Any other prime minister would have gone much earlier. They would have gone after the fixed-penalty notice, would have gone after the Sue Gray report, would have gone after the resignation of their chancellor and health secretary, but Johnson ploughed on. The executive of the 1922 Committee deferred changing the rules on Wednesday evening (6 July) because they assumed the Prime Minister would have got the message and walked. The response was to embolden him – albeit briefly – to carry on. His position was hopeless but that did not mean he gave up hope. He has a shamelessness and a lack of self-awareness that meant he was willing to pursue high office even when woefully ill-equipped, but it also made him formidably resilient. Add to that a ruthless willingness to do whatever it takes to attain and retain power, and there is a risk – and I put it no stronger than that – that there is still one last attempt to keep power left in him. It will not work, it probably will not happen, but it is a risk.
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The third argument about why he should go now is the most persuasive. On previous occasions, when a prime minister has resigned midterm it is because of policy grounds and electoral prospects. Margaret Thatcher had the poll tax, Tony Blair had the delayed impact of the Iraq War, David Cameron had the EU referendum defeat, Theresa May could not get her Brexit deal through. The policy direction was going to have to change, which required new leadership – but there was no objection to the previous prime minister minding the shop while the relevant political party sorted out the succession.
In contrast, Johnson has been removed not because of a failure of policy but because of a lack of integrity. The immediate cause is that his parliamentary colleagues think he lied about what he knew about the behaviour of Christopher Pincher. He did not receive the benefit of the doubt because his colleagues also think that he lied about partygate. Conservative MPs consider him to be a liar.
Just read through the resignation letters of ministers. The same theme emerges again and again. Concerns about integrity and honesty and trust and standards in public life. These are the letters of those who were prepared to serve under him and – for far too long – defend him, let alone his habitual critics. They have individually reached the same conclusion: that Boris Johnson is not fit to hold the office of prime minister.
His prime ministerial predecessors may have been flawed and may be judged as failures, but Johnson is different. He has been forced from office because he is in disgrace. If the letters of resigning ministers are to be believed, this is not about electoral unpopularity and differences of policy judgement. His behaviour did not meet the standards we expect of those in high office.
One task for the Conservative Party is to restore its respectability. It knew what it was doing when it gave power to Johnson, and it owes the nation an apology. It has begun the task of recovering its reputation by forcing his resignation as leader, but now is not the time for half measures. MPs and ministers need to finish the job. He needs to be forced from Downing Street immediately.