By all the norms of politics and common decency, Boris Johnson will soon be gone from high office. Every resignation letter resonates with the same tone of reluctance and exasperation: “You’ve achieved X but now we’re mired in competence and reputation scandals so I cannot serve.” Welcome though these resignations are, they miss the point.
There are no norms of politics and – for the narrow elite that Conservative politicians are now drawn from – no norms of common decency.
What triggered the resignations of the Chancellor, Health Secretary, Solicitor General and numerous junior frontbenchers was not only the active cover-up of Christopher Pincher’s alleged sexual misdemeanours. It was the blatant resort to Johnson’s reprehensible modus operandi: break the rules, lie, send others out to repeat the lie, issue a smirking semi-apology when found out and attempt to move on.
Rishi Sunak, Sajid Javid, Alex Chalk and the rest understood that modus operandi and accepted it, until it no longer worked. They accepted it, like the whole Tory party and much of its electorate, because it delivered unaccountable government.
It allowed ministers to dole out Covid contracts to people they met in pubs; or to companies recently created by Conservative peers. It allowed £4.9bn of taxpayers’ money to be given in fraudulent loans to failing businesses, while ordinary families struggled to keep the lights on.
Even in the Tories’ most cherished sanctum – the Ministry of Defence (MoD) – it has allowed more than £5bn to be wasted on a light tank that doesn’t work, and left Royal Navy ships without surface-to-surface missiles to defend themselves.
And it has allowed a flagrant disregard for decency: Pincher’s letter of apology began with the line “last night I drank far too much…”. His alleged pick-up line with Alex Story, a Conservative and former rower that complained about his advances in 2017, was “you will go far in the Conservative Party”. Leave aside the coercive implications of that and think of the political implications. The people who’ve “gone far” are those who’ve played the game – of favours and humiliations.
Think of Javid, who resigned as chancellor in 2020 because Johnson empowered Dominic Cummings to dismiss Javid’s special adviser. He allowed himself to be reappointed as the health secretary nonetheless, replacing Matt Hancock after he handed his adviser Gina Coladangelo, who he was having an affair with, a job whose advertisement was prematurely removed.
The pervasive presence of sex – consensual and non-consensual – in Tory scandals should not be laughed away as evidence of a pervasive social liberalism. Sex, in politics, is about flaunting and gaining power.
If your boss has been accused of using his position to try to advance the careers of his mistresses, and of conducting his affairs with them on government property, if the deputy chief whip – responsible for staff wellbeing – is rumoured to be “handsy”, then everyone who knows about this is both compromised and empowered. Everyone “has something” on everyone else and, in theory, what you get from it – tolerance for failure, undeserved promotion, a peerage – might depend on how assertive you want to be.
I hope that Johnson goes before the parliament’s summer recess and the cabinet resignations stop. It may seem perverse for a political opponent to say so, but I do not want Ben Wallace – who has shown competence at the MoD, despite its procurement failures – to give way to an inexperienced backbencher who has no grasp of the issues.
We are too close to the bottom of the Tory barrel to see the whole government resign, to be replaced with people for whom the “cheat, lie, apologise and call Zelensky” shtick has become acceptable.
With Covid raging, with mountains of uncollected luggage at our major airports, with the war in Ukraine requiring long-term commitment, and with the economy sliding into recession, we need a government that can govern. Only a political institution called the Conservative Party has the democratic duty to form that government. But we may have reached a point where its control mechanisms cannot deliver.
Because, despite the fact that they are all mired in the sleaze, and all culpable for the tolerance of lying, there are real factional divisions. The most obvious cleavage is over whether political goodwill should continue to be bought by throwing borrowed money at families and businesses, or – as Sunak implied in his resignation letter – by imposing higher taxes and cutting public spending.
“Our people,” Sunak wrote in his resignation letter, “know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one.”
That, in a way, sums up the reality from which Johnson has hid throughout his time in office. The lies, the hollow promises, the spectacular borrowing, and the culture wars were all avoidance strategies.
Brexit, together with Covid, inflation and the secondary impacts of the Ukraine crisis, are delivering blow after blow to ordinary people’s living standards. When Johnsonism is over, and we survey the wreckage, we will understand. It was a distraction, and that is all it was.
[See also: Andrew Marr: The last days of Boris Johnson]