News from Nowhere: Things Fall Apart
This is the beginning of the end for the UK’s unflushable Prime Minister.
The end, when it came, was always going to be spectacular. That’s what future historians will doubtlessly say, looking back upon this insanely turbulent period in British politics. So much tension had built up at the heart of government that nothing short of an explosion would shift it. So many lies had accrued that the sudden outpouring of truth would prove cathartically catastrophic.
He had acted late in the face of the pandemic crisis, costing tens of thousands of lives. His administration had wasted billions awarding contracts for useless equipment to their associates and friends.
He had partied during lockdown and lied to parliament about it. His police fine made him the first British Prime Minister to be sanctioned for lawbreaking while in office. He was the first British Prime Minister indicted to be investigated for misleading the House of Commons.
He had presided over an extraordinary economic crisis, with ordinary British people struggling to afford fuel and food.
Last month, more than forty per cent of his own MPs voted to fire him. He told the press that he wasn’t going to change his character, and that he was looking forward to serving a second and a third term in office. Former Conservative leaders said he should quit. His party chairman resigned.
It then came out last week that he had been aware of allegations about his Deputy Chief Whip before he had appointed him, and had then lied about it. On Wednesday, his government suffered a record-breaking number of resignations. Yet, as the days and hours rolled on, Boris Johnson still wouldn’t go.
It had started off so simply. Mr. Johnson’s Deputy Chief Whip, a man responsible for party discipline in parliament, had got drunk and assaulted two fellow guests at a private club in central London. He had swiftly resigned, and the Prime Minister had expressed his shock at the news. However, it soon emerged that this latest revelation was merely the tip of the iceberg: there had previously been a string of similar allegations against the disgraced politician. Downing Street said that Boris Johnson hadn’t been aware of these at the time of his appointment. The Prime Minister’s people were then quickly forced to admit that he had been. Johnson said, once again, that he was very sorry for having made a mistake.
His aides might have reasoned that for once, at least, it wasn’t the Prime Minister himself who had downed a few drinks and broken the law. But this was not how the press, the public and his own party saw this latest farce.
In the immediate wake of this mess, the sudden resignations of Johnson’s Chancellor and Health Secretary, both declaring their loss of confidence in their boss, proved to be the beginning of the end for the UK’s unflushable Prime Minister.
On Tuesday evening, as those two senior Tories quit, followed by the Conservative Party’s vice-chair and the Solicitor General, I happened to be appearing on a TV show for this network, discussing the peril in which Britain’s premier found himself. The timing seemed remarkably fortuitous.
The following morning, Johnson’s Children’s Minister, along with a junior Justice Minister and Treasury Minister, also left the government. A slew of ministerial aides also quit, and more Tory backbenchers demanded the PM go. At the same time, the Daily Mail newspaper’s usually staunchly loyal front page questioned whether this ‘greased piglet’ of a Prime Minister would be able to ‘wriggle out of this’. The Times and The Guardian said he was ‘on the brink’. The Daily Telegraph declared he was ‘hanging by a thread’.
By that afternoon, the Welsh Secretary had also quit. A junior minister in the Welsh Office declined the opportunity to replace him.
By Thursday morning, the Northern Ireland Secretary had gone too. By that point, a day and a half since the first resignations, more than fifty members of Boris Johnson’s government had quit. Those included ministers with portfolios in education, security, science, work and pensions, health, business, culture, technology, equalities, environment, housing, levelling up, the Treasury and the Home Office. The Attorney General had publicly called upon her boss to quit and had announced her own candidacy in a prospective leadership contest, but had curiously chosen to remain in post.
Within a day of his appointment, the media were reporting that the newly appointed Chancellor had told Boris Johnson he should resign. He was joined by the Home Secretary, Transport Secretary and Business Secretary. The following morning, the new Chancellor published an unprecedented letter openly calling upon the Prime Minister to resign. A few minutes later, the new Education Secretary – just appointed the day before – resigned.
The Levelling Up Secretary was fired, with Downing Street sources calling him a ‘snake’. (Gratifyingly, this was a term I had used to describe him in this very column just two weeks ago.)
It was by then unclear whether Mr. Johnson’s administration had enough ministers to carry on running the country. There were those who might have supposed that this wasn’t necessarily too bad a thing.
Reflecting upon his performance in parliament on Wednesday, the BBC’s political editor reported that ‘you could feel and hear Boris Johnson’s authority draining away’. To suggest that by this point Mr. Johnson was a ‘lame duck’ leader would have been to insult the leadership capabilities of disabled ducks.
On Thursday morning, one former Cabinet member compared Johnson’s refusal to see that his political career was finished with Donald Trump’s desperate bids to remain in office. The Tory chair of the House of Commons Liaison Committee, a well-known supporter of Boris Johnson, said the same thing. Meanwhile, The Sun newspaper’s front page announced that the Prime Minister had declared that ‘you’ll have to dip your hands in blood to get rid of me’.
Boris Johnson had also been quoted as saying that it would take a flamethrower to force him out of office. In that context, the UK’s extraordinarily inflated prices of petrol might have proven his last best hope of political salvation.
The Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition sensibly sat watching in silence as the chaos continued to unfold. Sometimes you don’t need to say anything at all. Journalists were meanwhile busy writing the premier’s political obituaries.
A decade ago, Armando Iannucci’s political satire "The Thick of It" featured an episode in which an incumbent leader suddenly quit. His opponents, who had of course been demanding he resign, had been obliged at that point to perform an extraordinary volte-face, in a bid to wrongfoot their rivals, hailing the departing leader as a great statesperson. Given the protracted and absurd circumstances of Boris Johnson’s fall from grace, that is, however, perhaps a feat of spin too far and too outlandish for the cheerleaders of today’s Labour Party to manage with anything approaching a convincingly straight face.
Eventually, on Thursday morning, after an agonising wait, Boris Johnson agreed to step down. He will He said he will be leaving in the autumn, once his replacement has been chosen, though others in his party have demanded he go straight away.
As his house of cards had collapsed around the Prime Minister’s ears, one was tempted to ask whether the last person to leave his Cabinet would please turn out the lights. But there might be a few of his colleagues on the other side of the House who, for once in their dealings with this slippery eel of a political operator, though grinning outwardly, cannot now see the funny side of his departure. The possibility of the Conservatives coming up with a competent and popular leader to replace Mr. Johnson must chill them to the bone. (If, on the other hand, the Tories elect the idiotically effusive Foreign Secretary – one of their favourites – as their new leader, Keir Starmer can laugh all the way to the polls.)