In Westminster, high politics is still conducted as an epistolary novel. Whenever a minister decides to leave the government, he or she is expected to convey their reasons in a public letter. Though the title is appropriate, most of these stiff and formal exchanges lack the verve of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Maybe Lionel Shriver can be prevailed upon to write We Need To Talk About Boris.
The resignation letter to Boris Johnson is becoming a minor art form and certain schools are emerging. Douglas Ross (May 2020) went for the claim that he could not serve in good faith after the Dominic Cummings goes to Durham affair. Matt Hancock (June 2021) blamed himself for letting people down. David Frost (December 2021) claimed Boris Johnson had let him down by being too soft on Brexit. Lord Agnew told the PM (January 2022) that the government was incompetent. Oliver Dowden resigned (June 2022) because the electorate didn’t like the Tories any more. And Chris Pincher (July 2022) apologised for drinking too much. With the exception of the final unedifying example, all these schools of thought are at least touched on in the two resignation letters submitted by Sajid Javid, the former health secretary and Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor of the exchequer.
Letter from Sajid Javid to Boris Johnson, 5 July 2022
It was a privilege to have been asked to come back into government to serve as secretary of state for health & social care at such a critical time for our country. I have given every ounce of energy to this task and am incredibly proud of what we have achieved. The UK has led the world in learning to live with Covid. Thanks to the amazing roll-out of our booster programme, investment in treatments, and innovations in the way we deliver healthcare, the British people have enjoyed months more freedom than other comparable countries. We have also made important strides in the recovery and reform of NHS and adult social care. The longest waiters are down by 70 per cent and, as you know, I have been working hard on wider modernisation of the NHS. I have also developed radical new approaches to dementia, cancer and mental health, and prepared the Health Disparities White Paper which will set out plans to level up health outcomes for communities that have been left behind for too long.
After the highly perfunctory pleasantry about the privilege of office, Javid opens with a rather apologetic list of apparent achievements. The resignation letter is an obvious signal that something has gone awry and so it is rare that it should celebrate any great material successes. Even where some can be claimed, as in Nigel Lawson’s resignation letter to Margaret Thatcher, the achievements are the core of the dispute. In this case Javid has not been in place long enough to have made the slightest difference. His main claim to be remembered is that he declared there would be no more lockdowns.
Given the unprecedented scale of the challenges in health and social care, it has been my instinct to continue focusing on this important work. So it is with enormous regret that I must tell you that I can no longer, in good conscience, continue serving in this government. I am instinctively a team player but the British people also rightly expect integrity from their government. The tone you set as a leader, and the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party and ultimately the country. Conservatives at their best are seen as hard-headed decision-makers, guided by strong values. We may not have always been popular, but we have been competent in acting in the national interest. Sadly, in the current circumstances, the public are concluding that we are now neither. The vote of confidence last month showed that a large number of our colleagues agree. It was a moment for humility, grip and new direction. I regret to say, however, that it is clear to me that this situation will not change under your leadership – and you have therefore lost my confidence too.
On first reading this seems direct, albeit wrapped up in flat language (team player, hard-headed, grip, new direction) but the punch is slightly pulled. Javid opens with the point that should have guided the whole letter. Johnson lacks integrity and this reflects badly on everyone. If this is the case, it really ought not to matter whether Johnson is competent or not. Indeed, if he has no integrity, then competence would be terrible. A highly competent rogue is worse than a hopeless rogue. So the second half of the case – about the hard-headed, competent Tories – undermines the force of the first half. The reason Javid is resigning is that Johnson’s instinct is always to dissemble and this is incompatible with high office. It is also true, as it happens, that he is not very good at being a prime minister but that is a subsidiary defect. Javid actually did this better in his first resignation letter, from February 2020, when he urged the PM to “ensure the Treasury as an institution retains as much credibility as possible”.
It is three years since you entered Downing Street. You will forever be credited with seeing off the threat of Corbynism, and breaking the deadlock on Brexit. You have shone a very welcome light on the regional disparities in our country, an agenda that will continue to define our politics. These are commendable legacies in unprecedented times. But the country needs a strong and principled Conservative Party, and the party is bigger than any one individual. I served you loyally and as a friend, but we all serve the country first. When made to choose between those loyalties there can only be one answer. Finally, I would like to put on record my thanks to ministerial and departmental colleagues, my admiration for NHS and social care staff, and my love for my family who have been immensely patient in these challenging times.
Yours ever, Sajid Javid
This is another perfunctory attempt to conjure achievement out of thin air. A legacy is meant to be “historic” rather than “commendable”. Javid’s strained formality contrasts with the much younger and bolder tone taken by Lee Anderson, the MP for Ashfield, who opened his statement by saying “I cannot look myself in the mirror and accept this…. Integrity should always come first”. The standard distinction between the interest of the party and that of the country – no less powerful for being standard – sounds a bit pious because Javid has muffled his message on the Prime Minister’s lack of integrity. By not being direct enough about the charge he loses some of the force of the verdict. Even though this is a short letter, it is too long. It needs to be sharpened around the main charge. It’s a reminder of Blaise Pascal’s apology to Honoré de Balzac for having written him such a long letter – he didn’t have time to write a shorter one.
Letter from Rishi Sunak to Boris Johnson, 5 July 2022
Dear Prime Minister,
It is with deep sadness that I am writing to you to resign from the government. It has been an enormous privilege to serve our country as chancellor of the exchequer and I will always be proud of how during the pandemic we protected people’s jobs and businesses through actions such as furlough. To leave ministerial office is a serious matter at any time. For me to step down as chancellor while the world is suffering the economic consequences of the pandemic, the war in Ukraine and other serious challenges is a decision that I have not taken lightly.
The last words are certainly true. Sunak should have resigned long ago, both for reasons of moral probity and maximum self-interest. He has lost credibility, and agonised long enough to be associated with the cost-of-living crisis as much as the furlough scheme. He has been confused and unclear throughout recent times, as this letter will go on to illustrate.
However, the public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously. I recognise this may be my last ministerial job, but I believe these standards are worth fighting for and that is why I am resigning. I have been loyal to you. I backed you to become leader of our party and encouraged others to do so. I have served as your chancellor with gratitude that you entrusted me with stewardship of the nation’s economy and finances. Above all, I have respected the powerful mandate given to you by the British people in 2019 and how under your leadership we broke the Brexit deadlock.
The false modesty of “last ministerial job” is a dissonant note. Does Sunak really think that his resignation will not bring down the PM? Does he have no ambition in the aftermath? Of course he does. He covets the top job, so why the coy pretence otherwise? It doesn’t sound at all plausible. Sunak also gives, albeit briefly, a clear reason for his resignation, which is the implication in the first sentence of this paragraph that government is not being conducted properly. If only he had left it there. Sadly, he is not done yet.
That is why I have always tried to compromise in order to deliver the things you want to achieve. On those occasions where I disagreed with you privately, I have supported you publicly. That is the nature of the collective government upon which our system relies and it is particularly important that the prime minister and chancellor remain united in hard times such as those we are experiencing today. Our country is facing immense challenges. We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy, and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions. I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people 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. In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different. I am sad to be leaving government but I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that we cannot continue like this.
Kind regards, Rishi Sunak
It would have been better to have resigned for reasons of propriety and then done the economic signalling separately, but there is an obvious political motivation for this second paragraph. This section is written for the many Tories who are worried that Johnson is far too free with his public spending. It is a direct signal of Sunak’s ambition, notwithstanding his phoney “last job in government” line. Rather like Sunak himself, it is all bit rich. Has he really only just found out that he and Boris Johnson have fundamentally different economic views? Of course not. If everything else had been going swimmingly, would he suddenly have found his position intolerable? No. The whole letter seems a calculated piece of politics, and not all that good politics either. Over the last few months, many doubts about Sunak as a successor to Boris Johnson have emerged. This letter shows how we reveal our characters so clearly when we write, whether we mean to or not.