For once, the message from the Downing Street machine was frank, accurate and crystal clear: “It’s over.” The double resignation of Sajid Javid, the health secretary, and Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, smashes the dam. It marks the end of Boris Johnson’s overlordship of Britain. The water is gushing through. The cracks gape in every direction. It cannot be rebuilt.
This doesn’t mean that the end for Johnson will come quickly. It certainly won’t come neatly. It would be in the national interest for him now to leave No 10 by the front door, announce his resignation and offer, in a spirit of generosity and humility, his help as the Tory party struggles in short order to find a new leader.
We may sneer and despise politicians. We may hate them. But the country needs governance and an effective government. Somebody must be chancellor of the exchequer. Somebody must run the NHS. Step forward, Nadhim Zahawi and Steve Barclay respectively. But the sad truth is that Johnson’s last gift to his party is likely to be a chaotic transition rather than a smooth one. Certainly, at the time of writing and as his cabinet started to come apart, he seemed determined to hang on. Loyalists were begged not to desert him. One by one the junior ministers fled. Tory party office holders resigned on live television. But still a zombie cabinet struggled on.
The question is, to what end? After a day spent in the Westminster coffee bars and corridors, it was clear to me on 5 July that this time Conservative backbenchers had had it up to the back teeth. I have never heard such anger – not against Tony Blair in the aftermath of the Iraq War, not against Margaret Thatcher as she was falling. No 10’s lies over the promotion of Christopher Pincher after allegations of sexual misconduct were made against him – exposed in a stinging public letter by the former head of the Foreign Office, Simon McDonald, one of the most respected public servants in Britain – genuinely revolted MPs who had up to then reluctantly stuck with the Prime Minister.
“This is worse than partygate,” was a phrase I heard half a dozen times from different people in the hours before the resignations of Sunak and Javid. Those plotting to take over the 1922 Committee, which comprises all Tory MPs except for ministers, think that up to half the entire parliamentary party – as many as 180 MPs – might be persuaded to send in letters demanding Johnson’s resignation.
A new executive for the 1922 Committee could change the rules and, if submerged by a sea of new letters, hold a leadership contest almost immediately. “We could do the whole thing in a matter of days,” one anti-Johnson Tory told me.
Any normal politician in Johnson’s position would go now, trying to retain a sense of dignity. Whether or not Johnson is forced out by a vote of Tory MPs, he is likely to be confronted by the chairman of the 1922 Committee, Graham Brady, telling him the jig is up.
But we know “Boris”. He will keep on jigging. He might very well try to stave off a parliamentary vote against him by bringing forward the House of Commons summer recess (the House only has a couple of weeks or so to sit before breaking). He has dangled the threat of an early general election to try to scare off his opponents. Looking at the record of his past behaviour, you would have to conclude that there is almost nothing he won’t try in order to stay in office.
One argument that will be used by his defenders we can demolish quickly: Boris Johnson has been chosen by “the people” not by mere MPs, and therefore that he should only be ejected by the electorate. Our system, the one in which he has risen and thrived, is a kind of parliamentary absolutism. If you have a majority of MPs, you can do almost what you like. The humble voter doesn’t choose a prime minister, but only a local MP.
This is in many ways a rotten system. It lacks checks and balances, as we have been observing under Johnson. Given the celebrity theatre of modern leadership, perhaps humdrum parliamentarianism feels a bit grey and dowdy, a bit outdated. The voting system we currently use is certainly unfair. And so on. But, frankly, for the time being, tough British parliamentarianism is the system Brexit was designed to defend and bolster, against all rival sources of authority. It’s too late to whinge now.
But for Johnson to dig his heels into the Downing Street carpets and force the Conservative Party at its most senior level into rival camps – the loyalists such as Nadine Dorries, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Dominic Raab versus those who can stick it no longer – is a particularly grim short-term outlook.
Caught between the Boris Massive and all those feeling sick at what’s happened to their party are those who perhaps felt the leadership would eventually fall into their laps, such as the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, and the favourite among Tory members in the country, the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. What should they do? It is already too late to look bold if they leave the government now – too late to get any credit for that. But the longer they stay in the cabinet, the more contaminated they are.
You’d have to have a heart of stone… The Prime Minister may be promising that he is moving on “soon”, and one of them will inherit. But they would be idiots to believe him. His game now is to get through the next few days, and then a few days after that, and then a few more… for as long as he can.
But he faces an entirely new challenge – well-known, experienced cabinet-level Tories who publicly demand his head. Sajid Javid, who spoke to the New Statesman at our Politics Live conference in London recently, is a tough and proud politician of strong right-wing views and an equally powerful sense of self. He has walked out of a Johnson cabinet before. If his former colleagues now start to brief against him, it’s going to get mucky.
Rishi Sunak, who seemed such a favourite as a future prime minister before the disaster of the Spring Statement and the controversy over the tax status of his wife, has the resilience of the seriously wealthy. There are not many people in the higher echelons of Westminster whom you could imagine walking away, perfectly happily, into an entirely different life. But he is one of them.
Even putting to one side the talented MPs outside government already – Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat and the rest – a Sunak-Javid leadership challenge would be formidable. Up to now, the Johnson loyalists have been able to say, “Trouble is, whatever you think of him, there isn’t really anyone else.”
That is no longer plausible. Leading Tories are now being ordered, in effect: “Pick a side.”
Unless Boris Johnson goes quickly, he will rip his party into pieces. But while this might be enjoyable for journalists and excellent news for opposition politicians, it is a terrible prospect for the country. With rising inflation, strikes, Russia’s advances in the war in Ukraine, and the trade friction caused by Brexit, Britain faces a sea of immediate troubles, as well as the longer-term ones of energy insecurity and persistently low productivity and growth. A period of protracted internal fighting by a governing party too divided to govern, and yet too scared to face the voters at a general election, is about as bad as it gets.
Business confidence will crumple. The pound will plunge, bringing a new round of inflation. Britain’s rivals and enemies will rock with laughter at the pitiable collapse.
Politics is not a game played in a few streets of central London, or parlayed across Westminster coffee tables. When it goes badly wrong, everyone is rocked. Power isn’t the private property of any individual, no matter how ruthless they are, no matter how well they tell jokes, no matter how many billionaires and newspaper proprietors they have cosied up to.
The Johnson seizure of Conservative England does, in the end, feel like a story out of Ancient Rome, something fundamentally un-British. Now it is very close to its end. Millions will be thoroughly delighted. But what is coming next? Something is. And it could be, simply, mayhem. Perhaps a cabal of senior Tories is even now able to concoct an alternative post-Johnson government able to stagger on through the tough year ahead. But don’t bet on it. We deserve a general election. But don’t expect that either.
[See also: Boris Johnson to resign – what happens now? ]
This article appears in the 06 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Last Days of Boris Johnson