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17 June 2023

Boris Johnson is finished. Salt the earth and tramp the dirt down

He always wanted to be remembered by history; now there’s a novella-length parliamentary report detailing his personality flaws.

By Jonn Elledge

In the spring of 146BC, at the end of the Third Punic War, the forces of Rome breached the walls of their great rival Carthage. After a week-long siege, the Roman general Scipio ordered that the city be first burned, and then the ruins razed to the ground. Those who survived were enslaved. Today, almost everything we know about Carthaginian civilisation comes from the people who destroyed it.

I mention all this not to comment on the savagery of Rome, but to ask: wouldn’t it be lovely if the same were to happen to the career of Boris Johnson? Wouldn’t it be great if, having been politically destroyed as surely as he now has, he were to be remembered by history not in his own words, but through those of the Privileges Committee? That body has, after all, recently pumped out 30,000 of the things, including a whole bunch of extra ones thrown into the mix because of the contempt he’d shown them. Johnson always wanted to be remembered by history; now there’s a novella-length parliamentary report detailing his social life and personality flaws over almost the entire length of his premiership. What more could anyone ask?

It feels, after all, as if Johnson’s strikingly Roman approach to politics – in which ideology and allies are changeable, policy irrelevant, and all that matters is the climb – might finally have come back to bite him. It was all very well treating hostile MPs as merely trifling obstacles on his own path to glory when he had a sizeable chunk of the public behind him. But alas, it’s transpired that voters aren’t a mob to be whipped up and directed by great men at will, but real people with their own views, interests and standards, who don’t much like being treated like amnesiac non-playable characters.

And the Privileges Committee is not a rival faction but a quasi-judicial institution which retains its power even when friends of Boris have solemnly warned of its overreach in the pages of Daily Mail. Not every rule can be circumvented by a deal between chums, or a carefully placed hostile briefing: sometimes the law binds even Boris Johnson. And the result is that, on Monday 19 June – his birthday – parliament will almost certainly vote to censure and symbolically strip the former prime minister of the parliamentary pass automatically granted to all ex-MPs, salting the earth where his career stood on the third anniversary of the lockdown-breaking party which started this mess. Bon anniversaire!

(An aside: there’s a measure of pathos in watching Nadine Dorries attempting, Johnson-style, to simultaneously both steamroller and make use of due process, by first resigning, then un-resigning so she can hold her own inquiry into why she doesn’t have a peerage. And all to escape the painfully obvious conclusion that Boris Johnson, a man who has lied to everyone his entire life and has repeatedly been sacked for it too, might not have been telling her the truth. It’d be tragic, if it wasn’t so bloody funny.)

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[See also: Boris Johnson won’t be back]

Could this really be the end? Johnson has had low moments before, of course, bottling his leadership bid after the 2016 referendum because he was too scared to face down Michael Gove, then quitting as foreign secretary two years later, not because he wanted to but because David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, had resigned first and he didn’t want to be left behind. Both of those were disasters from which he recovered.

This time, I’m not so sure. It’s not the report proposing a 90-day suspension from parliament, second only to that proposed for Keith Vaz, whose own scandal involved cocaine and a rent boy; nor is it the sea of front page headlines gleefully branding him a liar (perhaps new in scale, but hardly new information). Instead it’s two other things. One is the loss of that parliamentary pass. That’ll reduce his value as a corporate lobbyist (this too is extremely funny); more to the point it’ll also make it harder to hang around the estate, fermenting pro-Johnson rebellion in the Tory ranks. This is of course a dreadful shame.

The other reason to think Johnson might be done is that, as things stand, he is quite phenomenally and demonstrably unpopular – because it turns out that the voters, unlike the set dressing they’re supposed to be, actually do remember everything he’s said or done. This is why he resigned rather than facing a possible by-election in his constituency – because he knows he would lose. It’s also why reports he might stand as an independent candidate for mayor of London can be dismissed as nothing more than an attempt to keep his name in the papers. The city has become strikingly more pro-Labour and anti-Brexit since last he won there. Johnson’s own government, hilariously, changed its electoral system to make it harder for independents to win in the capital, too.

But Johnson’s paradox is that, while he can see he’s now unpopular enough that he’d probably lose his own seat, he still believes himself a unique political asset and the only man who can save the Tories from oblivion. That, one suspects, is a message the Mail’s “erudite” new columnist will be hammering at every opportunity. The disgraced former prime minister clearly hopes to use his platform to follow the Donald Trump playbook, and build an extra-parliamentary movement behind him. But Britain’s political parties are much more able to block unwanted candidates than America’s, and without a clear path back to the Commons the more likely parallel is not to Trump but Ted Heath: a bitter ex-leader facing long decades of nothing but grumbling about his successors. This is the funniest thing of all.

Two thousand years after it burned to the ground, all anyone knows of Carthage was the manner of its destruction. Scipio is said to have wept as he watched his handiwork, suddenly conscious that such a fate might one day befall Rome, too. Today, though, I feel another great hero, Nelson – the one from The Simpsons – is a more appropriate reference point. On the one hand all this gloating may be tempting fate. But on the other: ha, ha.

[See also: How Deep England fell out of love with Boris Johnson]

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