After withdrawing from the Conservative leadership contest, Boris Johnson claimed there was a “very good chance” he would have won but insisted he was acting in the “national interest” because strong government required a united party.
His disciples at the Daily Mail took up the refrain. “For the good of the party and the country, Mr Johnson has set his dream aside,” the paper declared. “This is a gesture of wisdom, honour and statesmanship. His time will come again.”
Johnson acting in the national interest rather than his own? What manifest nonsense! It is crystal clear why he withdrew.
He cut short his Caribbean holiday and flew home last week expecting to be rapturously embraced by a party filled with remorse over his departure in July. He offered “deals” to Rishi Sunak and Penny Mordaunt to clear his route to a spectacular Churchillian comeback. To try and build momentum, he and his aides claimed much more support within the parliamentary party than they seemed to actually have. They sent wavering Tory MPs dubious polling numbers to curry their support. Johnson even promised to keep his old nemesis, Jeremy Hunt, as Chancellor.
The ruses didn’t work. By the time he released his statement last night, Johnson had secured the backing of fewer than 60 named MPs, though he claimed to have surpassed the threshold of 100 required to stay in the race. The man who led his party to a “stonking victory” in the 2019 general election (albeit against the risible Jeremy Corbyn) had retained the support of scarcely one in six of his MPs. Even those that pass for “big beasts” in today’s drastically diminished Tory party – the likes of Suella Braverman, David Frost, Steve Baker and Kemi Badenoch – had deserted him, as had his apologist friend the former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, leaving a pathetic rump of diehard sycophants such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and Chris Heaton-Harris in his corner.
No, Johnson did not withdraw for the good of the country. He withdrew because he faced a crushing defeat and public humiliation.
As for the scores of Conservative MPs who deserted him for Sunak, it would be nice to think that they really did act in the national interest, and of some perhaps that’s true. But the rest would have seen what Johnson, blinded by his immense ego, could not.
They saw that the public had grown heartily sick of his lies, cronyism and debauchery, of his disregard for the law and prime ministerial ethics, of the endless stream of scandals that he generated, of his protection of venal loyalists, of his vacuous rhetoric and broken promises, of his indolence and incompetence, of his demonisation of those who stood in his way and the evident contempt with which this self-styled “champion of the people” actually treated the electorate. And that was before inflation began to surge, standards of living to plummet and public services to collapse.
The Tories suffered a string of crushing by-election defeats. Their poll ratings plunged. Johnson’s own approval rating reached -48. Loathed by most of the country, his MPs realised that he had long ago ceased to be a “winner” and had become an electoral liability whose return would have destroyed any chance of them retaining their seats.
Johnson appears not to understand any of that. He showed no contrition, no remorse, in his graceless resignation speech on 7 July, preferring to blame Westminster’s “herd instinct”. His statement last night was even more delusional. Referring to his “massive election victory less than three years ago”, he claimed he still has “much to offer” and would be “well placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024”.
Happily, the man who proved the most destructive, divisive and dishonest prime minister in modern British history will not get that chance. His unambiguous rejection by his party, not once but twice, shows that the “greased piglet” has finally been cornered, the conman has been rumbled, the snake-oil salesman has been run out of town.
It is a disgrace that yet another prime minister should be imposed on the country without any electoral mandate whatsoever – not even the paltry 81,326 votes of Tory party members that Liz Truss garnered. But for all Sunak’s flaws – not least the fact he stayed loyal to Johnson for far too long – he does promise to lead the Conservative Party away from the lunacy that has engulfed it these past six years.
He is not malign like Johnson, or absurd like Truss. He is a Brexiteer, but not a rabid one. He is a free marketeer, but not a fanatical libertarian. He will hopefully seek to unite our fractured country, not divide it through yet more culture wars. He is more pragmatist than ideologue, a realist not fantasist. Above all, he understands the need for Britain to live within its means.
Tory MPs knew all that when they backed Sunak in such large numbers over the weekend. In short, a party now trailing Labour by 30 points or more and facing the very real possibility of electoral oblivion appears finally to have learned its lesson. “Cakeism” has run its course. Johnsonian populism is, mercifully, dead.