It’s depressingly easy to forget, in all the excitement yesterday about whether Theresa May’s government might be about to go full Jenga, that at roughly the same time David Davis was handing in his resignation, Dawn Sturgess was dying of novichok poisoning in Wiltshire.
“The simple reality,” Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told MPs yesterday, “is that Russia has committed an attack on British soil which has seen the death of a British citizen.”
Where was foreign secretary Boris Johnson in all this? He certainly wasn’t at the Cobra meeting, where senior security officials met to discuss the crisis. Instead, Johnson was holed up with his political advisers, discussing the more important matter of his own future.
That Britain’s senior diplomat should view his career as more important than a Briton’s life should be shocking, except it isn’t. He’s done this before, of course – remember that time he misspoke about what Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran, putting her safety at risk, and then took nearly two weeks to acknowledge the error? – but that’s not the only reason.
It’s not shocking because this is just what Johnson is like, and there’s never been any pretence about it. There’s no evidence he cares about the public good, nor matters of policy, nor even ideology: he treats politics as a game, and his goal has only ever been to reach the next square on the board. This was how politics worked in the latter part of the Roman Republic, where the entire point was to complete the cursus honorum quicker than your peers, so I’ve occasionally wondered whether the Oxford classics department is to blame, but perhaps this is to overthink things. Perhaps this is just who Boris Johnson is.
But politics is not just a game. There are many government jobs that, in the words of Chris Mullin, amount to “minister for folding deckchairs”, but being foreign secretary isn’t one of them. In that role, Boris Johnson’s words and actions carried real weight – could be, at times, literally a matter of life and death.
So the fact Johnson chose to skip a Cobra meeting yesterday in favour of debating his own resignation should, to my mind, have made the matter a fait accompli. After everything he’d screwed up before, after all the blatant disloyalty to his own government, his behaviour yesterday should have been the last straw. He should never have been given the chance to resign: Theresa May should have fired him first.
Much the same could be said of Davis, who, in his two years as Brexit secretary, showed no evidence of treating the role with the seriousness it deserved. He told MPs he’d read detailed impact assessments which, when pushed, he admitted didn’t exist. All this year, the clock counting down, he spent just four hours in talks with the EU’s Michael Barnier.
And on Friday, he seems to have signed up to Theresa May’s Brexit plan without actually understanding it until he read the newspapers afterwards – a shocking indictment of how little he understood his brief. If lying to parliament hadn’t been enough to end his career, that alone should have finished him.
Yet he, too, left government at a time and in a manner of his own choosing. Once again, the shocking thing is not that he resigned: it’s that he wasn’t sacked first.
Theresa May still has one chance to correct for this weakness. On becoming Prime Minister, she appointed three senior Brexiteers to foreign policy roles. Two are now gone – but the disgraced former defence secretary Liam Fox remains at international trade, despite the fact the role serves little function.
Yesterday rumours were circulating that, were Fox not promoted to foreign secretary, he intended to quit. Today he is not foreign secretary – but whatever his plans now, he should not be given the chance to follow the others out of the door. In the past few days Theresa May has finally asserted her authority over the Brexiteers. To finish the job, she should sack him.