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24 May

Imagine if Boris Johnson was still prime minister

Tory MPs can feel vindicated by the return of partygate, but Rishi Sunak lacks answers to the bigger question of the day.

By Lewis Goodall

Put charitably, Boris Johnson is a good storyteller. Of the many that he and his followers have told about his tragicomic premiership, perhaps the most powerful is about its end. This revisionism would have you believe that the great man was brought down by Twitter, by pusillanimous MPs scared of a rough patch, of the sly Rishi Sunak, of the vengeful “blob”. A plot, a coup by the assembled parts of the machine, brought down our hero.

The latest revelations of the partygate affair, with the Cabinet Office referring Johnson to the police over accusations of further lockdown breaches – this time at the country retreat of prime ministers, Chequers – are a reminder of what nonsense this all is. The real reason for Johnson’s removal was nothing to do with political cowardice or subterfuge, but pure calculation. A calculation by Tory MPs that Johnson had outlived his usefulness, that his magic, such as it was, had expired.

Johnson was removed because the average Conservative MP no longer believed that his reputation was redeemable – and they were sure the man was not.

[See also: The Johnson Restoration now seems an impossible dream]

So it has proved. To feel the full force of their vindication, the typical Tory MP need only imagine if Johnson had still been prime minister on the day of his appearance earlier this year at the Privileges Committee inquiry into whether he misled parliament over partygate. Imagine he was still in office now, after the Chequers revelation. The two stories would now be fused together, with the Privileges Committee likely to want to wait for the police verdict on the latest developments.

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Despite the hollow noises from what remains of the Johnson camp, the net result of all of this is to strengthen Sunak’s position internally. It gives Conservative MPs a glimpse of the counterfactual and an invitation to ponder the great gamble of any return. It reaffirms the wisdom of their decision last summer to remove him. The case for a Johnson return has never been weaker, despite Sunak’s limited success in reversing their party’s fortunes.

Johnson always represented a party of one, and still does. He is an unstable element, absorbing all before him. Even under his successor but one, the Conservative Party often feels like a waiting room for different spasms of the Johnson drama to play out. As reassuring as that is for Sunak among Tories, to the public it is a reminder of how the Conservatives have become a byword for factionalism and tumult. Eight out of ten voters say that they want a change.

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Johnson once again dominating the airwaves poses another problem: there’s less space for the government to transmit its own message, to whatever proportion of the electorate is still listening. But then Sunak – a poor storyteller by any measure – does not seem to have much of a message to offer. 

The Westminster lobby will inevitably be consumed by another screening of the Johnson show, but the latest episode has landed on the day it became clear that inflation, and food inflation in particular, is going to be much harder to exorcise from the British economy than most policymakers thought. That, rather than the noise of partygate’s return, is what really matters. And on such issues, though they will partly determine the next election, Sunak and his government have little to say.

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

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