A little after 7.10am on the morning after two humiliating by-election defeats for the Conservatives in Tamworth and Mid Bedfordshire, the distinguished pollster, John Curtice, was being interviewed by Nick Robinson on Radio 4’s Today. Curtice decided to conclude the interview mischievously.
“A big ‘what if’,” he told Robinson. “Let us say that those partygate happenings had never happened or, at least, we’d never heard of them, and as a result Boris Johnson was still in 10 Downing Street today. Would Labour be doing as well in the polls as they are at present?”
My guess is that Curtice is not a huge enthusiast for the former prime minister and that, at least in part, his point was that partygate may prove to be the pivotal moment of this parliament. But there is another interpretation, certainly the one that Robinson saw when he responded by saying that this would “put a smile on Johnson’s face”, which is that Johnson would make a more formidable opponent for Labour than Rishi Sunak.
Whether that was really Curtice’s point (and, if it was, on the specific point of Johnson’s electoral appeal he may well be right) we can put to one side. But the more the Tories struggle in the polls, the easier it is for some people to make the case that dumping Johnson was a mistake. When I say “some people”, I mean Johnson himself plus Nadine Dorries. But, assuming that the Conservatives are voted out of office at the next election (as is very likely), one can imagine this argument being made with greater force by greater numbers.
Of course, the partygate happenings did happen, and we did find out about them, and this, combined with the Owen Paterson and Christopher Pincher scandals left even a supine parliamentary party with little choice but to remove Johnson. And had it not done so, the Standards and Privileges Committee inquiry into partygate would have been devastating for the government with Johnson as a serving prime minister. Johnson’s supporters, I suspect, believe they would have been able to lean on Tory MPs to get a different result. I am not so sure about that but if your counterfactual depends upon successfully undermining an independent parliamentary process, you are not in a happy place.
There is a further objection to the case for Johnson for PM. Whatever his electoral appeal, he was wholly incapable of doing the job.
This is not an original point. One need only read Johnson at 10 by Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell to see how unsuited Johnson is to ministerial office. In case this view needed reinforcing, the evidence put before the Covid inquiry this week has been damning. It is true to say that the circumstances in March 2020 were immensely challenging, with information about the virus limited. It is also true that, taken in the round, the international performance of the UK in terms of excess deaths was unexceptional (which was not how it appeared at the time).
On what we have heard, achieving a mid-table performance was not down to Johnson’s efforts. There are certain minimum requirements one should expect from a prime minister. Diligence. The capability to focus on the most important issues. A concern for the welfare of British citizens. An ability to make decisions and set a strategic direction. And the leadership skills that ensure the government as a whole is able to function with high standards. On all these fronts, Johnson was a dismal failure.
It remains a mystery as to what he was doing between 14 and 24 February but what is clear is that he was not focusing on the potential implications of Covid. As the former health minister, James Bethell, has pointed out, “this was bad news of a kind that [Johnson] does not like to respond to and he did everything he could to avoid the subject”. A clear dereliction of duty.
To the extent that he did engage with the subject, he was inclined to let the virus rip on the basis that most of the deaths would involve “people who will die anyway soon” and who should “accept their fate”. I am sure that will go down well with his elderly audience on GB News.
As for Johnson’s ability to make decisions, forced to choose between his instincts and the informed advice, he couldn’t. In the past few days, we have heard evidence from his cabinet secretary, his principal private secretary, his chief adviser, his director of communications and his chief scientific adviser that Johnson was unable to reach a conclusion and stick to it and that this seriously hampered the government’s ability to deal with the crisis.
Finally, we come to the culture in Johnson’s Downing Street. What has been confirmed is that it was unpleasant and dysfunctional. One fraught row, for example, was described by Johnson himself as “a totally disgusting orgy of narcissism by a government that should be solving a national crisis”. Dominic Cummings comes across as destructive and hysterical but ultimately it is the prime minister who must take responsibility.
So before the argument gets going that Johnson was an election winner and that the Tories should have stuck with him, all those who make that case – and, indeed, all those who did something to put him in office as leader of the Conservative Party – should be asked to acknowledge that Johnson was an incapable, unprofessional, unserious, negligent and woeful prime minister. He is a stain on the reputation of the country and the Conservative Party.
[See also: Dominic Cummings’ saviour complex]