The Johnson era has been slow to die. The man himself held on for six months after the first partygate story broke, futilely trying to resuscitate his ailing premiership. Boris Johnson then toyed with a return to Downing Street. He flew back from Mustique to take part in the Conservative leadership contest after Liz Truss imploded only to snub his supporters in the parliamentary party by pulling out. After that, he contested his suspension for lying to parliament, only to snub his constituents by resigning instead of fighting a by-election.
Johnson’s cadre in the Conservative Party followed his lead. They put about rumours of his return. They painted the Privileges Committee as a sham court. They framed Rishi Sunak as a usurper. But unable to reconvert their party to their cause, the Johnsonites fled to the sofas of TalkTV and GB News. Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to resurrect his reputation by preaching on GB News every weekday night at 8pm. On the same channel, Esther McVey hosted a show with her husband. Nadine Dorries became a Friday night host on TalkTV. At least seven members of Johnson’s first cabinet have either resigned from parliament or will do so at the next election.
But Dorries surpassed the rest at dragging out the end. She said she would resign in June after Johnson’s attempt to promote her to the House of Lords was blocked. Denied a peerage because she was still an MP, she remained an MP to investigate why she wasn’t a peer. She was waiting for things to be different. One Tory MP described her to me as the “Miss Havisham of our age, wondering why Boris hasn’t married her yet”. That’s quite the political obituary.
The cynical among us would say she stayed on to retain a platform to promote her next book – The Plot: The Political Assassination of Boris Johnson – which will be published on 28 September, conveniently timed for the Conservative Party conference. Dorries has sold millions of novels during her other career as a writer. Usually sagas of working-class Irish life in Liverpool, they are known, perhaps dismissively, in the publishing industry as belonging to the “clogs and shawls” genre. The Plot, by contrast, promises political treachery.
Elements of the statement in which she finally resigned as MP for Mid Bedfordshire over the weekend doubled as book promotion: “It became clear to me as I worked that remaining as a backbencher was incompatible with publishing a book which exposes how the democratic process at the heart of our party has been corrupted.” Since Johnson’s fall, Dorries has become a vindictive critic of the post-Johnson party. Her resignation was designed to wound the Prime Minister, not just sell copies of her book.
Her critics sneered back. Some relished the chance to attack a bullish northern blonde. Dorries was different to her colleagues in the Conservative Party. She was a muscular, fantastical booster of Britain and more like the public, and certainly many Conservative Party members, for it. She detests Sunak, who is in many ways Johnson’s antithesis: pragmatic and pruned, uneasy speaking about grand ideas, industrious and uxorious. Or as Dorries’s resignation letter reads: “You flashed your gleaming smile in your Prada shoes and Savile Row suit from behind a camera, but you just weren’t listening. All [business leaders] received in return were platitudes and a speech illustrating how wonderful life was in California.”
[See also: Liz Truss: One year on]
In their petty shallowness, these words are reminiscent of Johnson. And Dorries was the archetypal Johnsonian MP. Her attempt to privatise Channel 4 as culture secretary was a mirage, an obfuscation that achieved nothing. She will be remembered for erroneously claiming the channel received public funding in front of a parliamentary committee. Unable to reform television, she joined it. In recent months, her constituents might have had a better chance contacting her by phoning in to TalkTV than calling her office.
Sunak will be pleased to see another critic gone. He goaded Dorries to go on an LBC phone-in earlier this month. Her presence was becoming a distraction. But he won’t welcome another by-election. Insiders say Labour has been campaigning in the constituency every day since Dorries first announced her intention to stand down in June. I’m told that funds are bottomless. If Labour surmounts the Conservatives’ 24,000-vote majority, it would be its biggest ever by-election win. That’s worth remembering in the spin war to come.
Whatever the result, a chapter in Conservative history is slowly closing. The Truss premiership amounted to less than a blip, let alone an era. Sunak now plays the role of funeral director, transferring Johnson’s 80-seat majority from the morgue to the grave. Meanwhile, rival factions are bubbling beneath the faux unity imposed on the party. Even if the Prime Minister ekes out a victory at the next general election, his grip is weak. A unifying mission for government eludes him.
Beneath the bitterness and conspiracy theory about Sunak’s “assassination” of Johnson, there’s a truth in Dorries’s resignation letter. “Since you became Prime Minister,” she writes, “[the 2019] manifesto has been completely abandoned.” She’s right: the manifesto has not survived three prime ministers, a war in Europe and a pandemic. Truss sought to create her own project around low taxes and growth. Sunak won’t dare set out a vision for the country given his dire position in the polls. Keir Starmer has been a better student of that manifesto than either of Johnson’s successors.
If the Johnsonian era is dead, the question is what comes next. Johnson’s success was largely a consequence of voters’ frustration with the failure to leave the EU. But he also harnessed a desire for higher public service funding and nationalist feelings in the country. Now, an alliance is emerging between National Conservative MPs such as Danny Kruger, who was Johnson’s political secretary, and Red Wall MPs who want to reduce immigration. Their views may not fully align with Johnson’s: his latent liberalism ensured immigration soared under his premiership, for instance. But this new alliance will try to keep the ideas of the Johnson era alive, if not the man who promoted them.
[See also: The Tory selection doom loop]
This article appears in the 30 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Tax Con