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12 June 2023

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson’s other enablers should never be forgiven

It was Sunak who helped the great con man of British politics secure the Tory party leadership.

By Martin Fletcher

Cast your minds back to June 2019. Theresa May had resigned, having failed to get her EU withdrawal deal through a mutinous parliament, and the Conservatives were in the middle of choosing a new leader. They had been thrashed in the previous month’s local elections. Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party were resurgent, and there was a very real possibility of Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn winning a looming general election.

The Times then published an article from three of the Conservatives’ rising stars. The party and the country were in terrible danger, the trio warned. Boris Johnson alone “commands the instant credibility needed to achieve support for a renegotiated deal amongst a suspicious public let down by delays and defeat”. Beyond Brexit, they gushed, Johnson “is one of life’s optimists and can help us recapture a sense of excitement and hope about what we Conservatives can do for Britain”. He was a “proven winner” who would “build a strong team around him to deliver for our country”.

The writers, whose intervention played a major role in persuading the parliamentary party to back Johnson, were Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden and our Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak.

It was deeply, deeply cynical. They and their fellow Tory MPs knew full well that Johnson was totally unfit for office. They had witnessed his embarrassing tenure as foreign secretary. They knew he was dishonest, disloyal, unprincipled and interested only in his own advancement. 

Max Hastings, his former editor at the Daily Telegraph, had written years before that if Johnson became prime minister “I shall be among those packing my bags for a new life in Buenos Aires or suchlike, because it means that Britain has abandoned its last pretensions to be a serious country”.

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[See also: Boris Johnson won’t be back]

Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Conservative MP, had written with remarkable prescience in 2016 of his “casual dishonesty, the cruelty, the betrayal; and, beneath the betrayal, the emptiness of real ambition: the ambition to do anything useful with office once it is attained”.

One of the multitude of lesser voices that sounded the alarm was my own. Johnson, I wrote in the New Statesman, was “spectacularly lacking in the moral qualifications required to lead the country. He is a congenital liar, serially disloyal, untrustworthy, irresponsible and hopelessly chaotic.” For the Tories to choose him as their leader would be a “desperate gamble”.

But choose him they did, and what a grievous price the United Kingdom has paid for their self-serving recklessness.

He wrenched Britain out of the European Union on the worst possible terms, causing immense damage to our economy, our global stature and our social cohesion – damage that will last for generations. The sunlit uplands that he promised, the Britannia unleashed, the plethora of trade deals, the Brexit bonanza for the NHS, the “levelling up” and restored sovereignty have all proved completely illusory.  

He debased our public life with his lies, corruption, cronyism, law-breaking and relentless assaults on any supposedly independent institution that he could not control – the civil service, judiciary, BBC, universities, Electoral Commission.

He was the first prime minister in modern times who knowingly pursued a policy (Brexit) that he knew to be deeply harmful to his country; the first to put his political ambition before the national good; the first who set out to exploit the worst instincts of the British people – their latent xenophobia, jingoism and arrogance; and the first to be driven from office in disgrace. 

He left behind not just a broken country, but a broken Conservative Party. He trashed its reputation for moral rectitude, fiscal responsibility, pragmatism, common sense and respect for law and order. He promoted the worthless and purged the worthy.

Four years on, Johnson has now been drummed out of the House of Commons as well as No 10. Though he does not seem to realise it, he is reviled by all but a tiny rump of grassroots Tory members and, in parliament (or at least until recently in parliament), by a mere handful of diehard apologists such as Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg

Watch: why Boris Johnson’s resignation makes a Labour election victory more likely

Sunak, his ministers and the majority of Tory MPs are naturally doing their best to disown the leader they once lionised, to distance themselves from a man who has become an enormous electoral liability. On Sunday’s talk shows, Grant Shapps, the Energy Secretary, spoke of the “new management” in No 10, and suggested “the world has moved on” from the “drama” of the Johnson years.

But this we should never forget. Sunak may have belatedly precipitated Johnson’s downfall by resigning as chancellor last July, but it was he who helped the great con man of British politics secure the Tory party leadership with that letter to the Times back in 2019, and it was he who served silently and loyally as the second most senior member of Johnson’s rotten government for the best part of three years.

Come the next election, we should not forgive Sunak’s role as a key enabler and facilitator of Johnson’s reign of destruction. The Prime Minister is undoubtedly an improvement on his two predecessors, but we should not forgive his complicity in one of the most shameful chapters of our nation’s story.

[See also: The Conservatives must finally move on from Boris Johnson]

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