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Boris Johnson won’t be back

He has never been a man with a plan, rather an optimistic narcissist who believes something may turn up.

By Andrew Marr

There is no grand plan; and if there is, it won’t work. Boris Johnson behaves like a violent drunk finally expelled from his favourite pub; fists flailing, turning the air blue with furious invective, and pretending he is choosing to leave of his own accord. He’ll be back! No, he won’t.

I base this prediction not on the numbers inside the parliamentary Conservative party, which are overwhelmingly against him; nor on the obvious difficulty of Johnson getting approved as a parliamentary candidate for somewhere else in the near future; nor on the timing of the electoral cycle, which will encourage the great majority of Tories to stick with the current leadership.

No, his fundamental problem is his own political agenda, as set out in the furious, spittle-flecked tirade of his resignation statement.

For the Tories to rediscover their “Mojo”, says Bojo, they first of all need to remember and make the most of Brexit – that turn in the country’s direction which is now unpopular, and set out a “pro-growth and pro-investment agenda. We need to cut business tax and personal taxes – and not just as a pre-election gimmick.” This is Trussism, the fantasy that you can slash taxes at a time of high borrowing and low growth, without funding the policy.

And this matters, crucially, to Johnson’s wider story about his own popularity. In his statement he said: “When I left the office last year the government was only a handful of points behind in the polls. That gap has now massively widened.”

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So let’s look at the numbers. Taking aggregate polls rather than individual ones, the Tories were about 10 points behind when Johnson announced his resignation as prime minister on 7 July last year. In reaction to that, the polling deficit narrowed to six points.

Now, granted, over the course of the autumn, the Tories’ woes dramatically increased, until they were as much as 30 points behind, a devastating position from which they have only very partially recovered. But that was all because of the disaster of the Truss-Kwarteng mini-Budget, a moment of truth and revelation for the country but not, it appears, for Johnson.

The rest of his assault on Rishi Sunak is not much more impressive. “Why have we so passively abandoned the prospect of a free trade deal with the US?” he asks, doing his best to sink the admittedly pretty thin “Atlantic Declaration” beneath those eponymous waves. Well, presumably for the same reason that he was unable to clinch such a deal when he was prime minister – because Washington wasn’t interested, particularly when Johnson was in Downing Street. As his former trade minister and close ally Conor Burns told me last week, a US-UK trade deal was always an unlikely, needy and overhyped prospect.

Why, Johnson asks, in a statement really directed at dissident Tories – has the party “junked measures to help people into housing or to scrap EU directives or to promote animal welfare?” Well, again, that might just be because so many, er, Tory MPs, rebelled against national housing targets; because his plan to shred inherited EU legislation was so ludicrously fast, ill-conceived and unparliamentary that even that renowned leftie Kemi Badenoch realised it was impossible; and because with a diminished parliamentary majority, No 10 did not want to get into a row over hunting.

[See also: Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson’s other enablers should never be forgiven]

The Sunak plan may well not work. I don’t think it will. His five pledges, focused on immediate and practical problems, such as NHS waiting lists and inflation, are in many ways out of his hands. If he was able to claim some kind of victory by early next year, that would put him in a better position, for sure. But there is very little sign that the electorate is prepared to forget all the failures of the Conservative era and treat the Sunak government as a fresh start.

But Johnson’s resignation is ultimately a reminder that there is not an alternative right-wing plan likely to enthuse and galvanise enough voters to keep the Tories in power. There is only paranoia, bluster and bitterness.

Johnson’s real case is a Trumpian “I alone” great man theory of power. His supporters compare him to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cincinnatus, Winston Churchill, Bonnie Prince Charlie and various thugs from Game of Thrones. He bases his potency on the Brexit referendum – 16.7 million people marching behind him that time, and the Tories’ 2019 election victory, when he had 14 million people at his back.

Certainly, his name will always be intertwined with Brexit. But given how many of those 16.7 million regret what they did and given what we know about Johnson’s dithering and mixed motives for backing Leave, this isn’t quite the slam dunk he seems to think it is.

As for the 2019 victory, Johnson was an utterly superb rhetorical campaigner, brimming with energy and positivity, a storyteller prepared to bend the bleak facts of everyday life into a thriller with an optimistic ending. But he was also campaigning against Jeremy Corbyn, who many working-class voters found it utterly impossible to support.

Is this Boris Johnson’s self-penned political obituary? For his sake I hope not. It was graceless, self-pitying, (“I am now being forced out of parliament by a tiny handful of people, with no evidence to back up their assertions”) and shows a wilful lack of understanding of parliamentary politics.

The committee, which he accuses of being a “kangaroo court” conducting a “hit job” on him, had a Conservative majority. The “tiny handful” of people who have forced him out were the Conservative parliamentary party and his ministerial colleagues and they did so only because his own behaviour had absolutely forced them to.

Watch: Rachel Wearmouth and Ben Walker on why Boris Johnson’s resignation is a gift to Labour

And in everything Johnson said, there was uncertainty just under the surface. If he really felt he was still a magnificently popular campaigner, untarnished by his behaviour in Downing Street, why did he duck fighting his own Uxbridge seat in a by-election? “Democracy! But not now…”

It is possible that, with the near-simultaneous resignation of Nadine Dorries from the Commons and the consequent mid-Bedfordshire by-election, some wider populist-right plot is under way. Could it be that Johnson and his supporters in the Conservative Democratic Organisation are pondering an eventual realignment, bringing in Reform UK voters and members and using hard-right TV stars to support them?

Yes, it’s all possible. But it isn’t likely. The Tory party, after a period of agonising pain, has found a new direction which remains difficult but isn’t ridiculous. The Conservative and Unionist Party is not the US Republican Party. UK politics is still, just about, less infected with conspiracy theory and paranoia. Johnson is not “Britain Trump”.

Indeed, Johnson has never been a man with a plan, rather an optimistic narcissist who believes something may turn up – as throughout his life, it mostly has. Perhaps, in the wake of a catastrophic Tory defeat next year, it will. But for the time being, the jig is up.

[See also: Starmer must dare to reimagine capitalism, not just beat the Tories]

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