News from Nowhere: Horror Show
The problem was, of course, that a lot of people tend to vote for false promises, mistaking them for real hopes. For every Barack Obama, you get a vulgar fistful of Johnsons, Trusses, and Trumps.
Mary Elizabeth Truss is the shortest-serving Prime Minister in British political history. Were it not for the fact that the BBC last night screened a special episode of its most iconic and longest-running drama series as part of the celebrations of that corporation's centenary, she would have become the first Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan not to have had any new Doctor Who broadcast during their tenure in Downing Street. Macmillan quit office fifty-nine years ago.
The cycles of UK politics have somewhat accelerated in recent times. Jodie Whittaker, who left the show last night, saw three different Prime Ministers running the country during her time starring in Doctor Who. Margaret Thatcher survived four different actors playing Doctor Who.
At the end of last night’s episode, David Tennant took over from Jodie Whittaker as the lead actor in Doctor Who. He had previously played the role between 2005 and 2010, to both critical and popular acclaim. His return to the series will, however, be short-lived: his fellow Scot, the actor Ncuti Gatwa is due to assume the lead role later in 2023.
Meanwhile, over the course of the last few days, the people of the UK have been living in fear that the horrors of this year’s Halloween festivities might be overshadowed by the return of another eccentric, bizarre and otherworldly character to our television screens and public life, the roguish figure of Boris Johnson, the former Prime Minister who was forced by his own parliamentarians to resign from office in disgrace just a few months ago.
However, just as last night’s special episode of Doctor Who drew to a close, Boris Johnson shocked his backers by announcing that he was dropping out of the Tory leadership race. Given his staying power last time round, this came as a major surprise. It was the first time he’d pulled out of anything early in his life.
The British people love a triumphant comeback as much as anyone else, and one of Mr. Johnson’s followers had described the prospect of his return as ‘the biggest comeback since Lazarus’. But this had felt less like the second coming of David Tennant or of ABBA than the resurrection of Freddy Krueger or Count Dracula. Happy Halloween, folks. Welcome to the rockiest horror show of them all.
(And so we might imagine, in a long-forgotten crypt somewhere deep beneath the heart of Westminster, the sound of a low rumbling mumbling had resonated through the cracked stone of a great grey tomb, a lordly mausoleum engraved with but the single letter ‘B’...)
Mr. Johnson had after all been thrown out of office by his own MPs for his repeated acts of brazen dishonesty – and he is still under investigation for lying to parliament. But his backers had argued that his original policy platform had an overwhelming electoral mandate, the eighty-seat parliamentary majority he won in his landslide victory of December 2019, and that, for the lifetime of the current parliament, that spectacular endorsement would continue to stand.
There’d therefore be no possible need or expectation for the resurgent Prime Minister to take the country again to the polls. They believed his premiership had simply suffered an unfortunate hiatus. He’d just been taking an extended summer break.
As this latest scramble for power began, the Defense Secretary had observed that Johnson’s resounding mandate was ‘an important thing to bear in mind’. It might certainly have been considered important for a government and a party desperate to demonstrate some degree of democratic legitimacy without actually having to face a general election in which they would most likely be all but annihilated.
Another Cabinet minister who came out in favor of Johnson’s return was Nadhim Zahawi, who not long ago, as his Chancellor, had publicly called for him to quit. Then, within minutes of his old boss pulling out of the race, Mr. Zahawi switched his allegiance to Rishi Sunak.
Boris Johnson had undoubtedly once had a convincing electoral mandate. But he then went on to squander and trash that political capital. He became what one columnist in the Daily Mail (once Johnson’s most loyal media cheerleader) last week described as ‘the essence of instability’.
Yet he briefly sought to return, like Cincinnatus, or Schwarzenegger, or Napoleon, or the evil living dead: less the resurrected messiah, more the revenant mess.
(Cue the distant echoes of manic laughter and the opening bars of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue.)
Earlier this year, he’d left his own party tainted and broken. He devastated what it had by way of a soul. This summer, the Conservatives had, in consequence, done their very best to tear themselves apart in the process of a remorseless and vitriolic contest to succeed him, a race which had lasted somewhere between two months, in real time, and approximately two hundred and fifty years, if measured in terms of the moral and emotional exhaustion it incurred.
This second time round, though, the party’s grandees had decided that the race for Number 10 should be over in about a week. This seemed an extraordinary volte-face, even for a party that had become known in recent weeks for its almost preternatural capacity for U-turns. It was like a literature lover who, feeling that all seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu might prove a little excessive as a light holiday read, had instead chosen to take The Very Hungry Caterpillar to get her through her fortnight in Magaluf.
As it turned out, as the party had raised the bar on the number of nominations needed to go forward, the contest only in the end took a few days, though again it felt like a lifetime.
From the start of the race on Friday, the media were reporting that its three leading candidates were former Chancellor Rishi Sunak, Leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt, and Mr. Johnson himself.
Both Sunak and Mordaunt had stood against Liz Truss for the leadership in the summer. Sunak had been the top choice of Tory MPs but had proven less popular with the grassroots members of the party. This may in part have been the result of his refusal to invent dangerous feelgood stories about how unrestrained tax cuts would lead to limitless economic growth. His emphasis on fiscal prudence appeared to play strongly against him in his bid to gain the hearts and minds of the tax-cutting party of Middle England.
His failure may have been due to ill-feeling engendered by his multi-millionaire wife’s non-domiciled tax status, or the fact that he holds the right to permanent residence in the United States. It may also have been related to the colour of his skin.
It was felt by many that if Sunak had this time gone up against Johnson in a ballot of party members, then Johnson could have easily won.
The other serious contender, Penny Mordaunt, had taken third place in the summer’s parliamentary ballots, following a smear campaign spearheaded by the Daily Mail newspaper, which, for reasons it later came to regret, was determined to get Liz Truss into power.
In her youth, Ms. Mordaunt had donned the sequins to work an assistant to a stage magician and eight years ago had featured as a competitor on a primetime celebrity diving show called Splash! – on which she had famously performed a public bellyflop of such staggering gracelessness that it would have made Liz Truss proud. She has also previously served in the Cabinet as Defense Secretary and International Development Secretary, but that had never so much interested the British public or press.
Yesterday morning, Ms. Mordaunt, trailing badly in parliamentary support, took part in an ill-advised television interview in which she was so eager to distance herself from the headstrong approach of the Truss administration – in which she had continued to serve – that she refused to commit to asserting her own positions on such key points as immigration, benefits and healthcare funding, and – in thus failing to explain what she stood for – pretty much ruled herself out of the race.
By this afternoon’s deadline for nominations, it was clear that Penny Mordaunt hadn’t pulled off the greatest conjuring trick of her career and had failed to make the cut. Ever the magician’s assistant, she had nevertheless proven a welcome distraction from the real action.
Much to the relief of many Conservatives, her departure left the route to Downing Street free for what they saw as Rishi Sunak’s safe pair of hands, after Boris Johnson – the party’s high-risk, high-octane option – had surprised everyone by stepping back in the contest’s final hours.
Mordaunt the Magician’s Assistant had been unable to secure sufficient parliamentary backing to challenge Dishy Rishi in a final face-off, and at the very last minute she also withdrew from the race. The former Chancellor’s coronation was therefore assured, without recourse to the unpredictable process of a poll of party members.
But surely Sunak’s elevation to the nation’s highest office had been inevitable after the catastrophic departures of the country’s previous two premiers? How could so many Tories have ever considered the possibility of bringing Boris Johnson back?
The problem was, of course, that a lot of people tend to vote for false promises, mistaking them for real hopes. For every Barack Obama, you get a vulgar fistful of Johnsons, Trusses, and Trumps. You can so easily end up with a Berlusconi, Bolsonaro, or Brexit. Or Boris. Or Boris back.
Yet surely not even the grassroots membership of the UK Conservative Party – often caricatured as the bigoted pensioners of the blue-rinse brigade – could have really wanted to turn the clock back to the dying days of Boris Johnson’s administration less than two months ago, as if none of the trauma and shame had ever taken place? If a week is a long time in politics, it seemed like many had felt that seven weeks was enough to constitute an eternity, a span way beyond the scope of any parliamentary statute of limitations, through which all past sins might be absolved and forgotten.
Others of course felt it was no time at all. This would have been their doomsday scenario, what one Conservative MP had called a ‘never-ending nightmare’ on Downing Street.
One BBC correspondent had spoken of the ‘horror among many of his colleagues’ that Johnson might return. Erstwhile Tory leader William Hague had declared that his return would send the party into a ‘death spiral’. Johnson’s own former deputy Dominic Raab had warned against a reprise of the ‘soap opera’ on his old boss’s time in office. His former chief Brexit negotiator had cautioned against ‘repeating the chaos and confusion of the last year’. Even his former chief of staff had announced he was backing Rishi Sunak.
One erstwhile Conservative Party treasurer had said that the idea that the blond bombshell could assemble a stable administration was ‘delusional’. The Observer newspaper had yesterday reported that top Tories feared that Johnson’s return ‘would risk the party’s death’. Once a key ally, leading Brexiteer Steve Baker had told the press that a Johnson government would be ‘bound to implode’.
Shortly after Johnson had withdrawn from the race, one of his most enthusiastic supporters switched his loyalty to Sunak, telling the press that it was now ‘time for the grown-ups’ to take charge.
But, for his diehard disciples, their darling ‘de Pfeffel’, so recently hung out to dry – and indeed virtually crucified – by his treacherous Cabinet colleagues, had served his time in political purgatory, and might somehow re-emerge with his reputation miraculously restored, the reborn saviour of the sacred land of Albion, their ebullient renaissance man.
Of course, that purgatory had inevitably involved several foreign holidays and a spot of golf. He’d probably also watched a lot of Peppa Pig. This martyr of the nineteenth hole had most grievously suffered for our sakes, and he might now, redeemed, gloriously redeem us all.
Yet, when Liz Truss had resigned, the serving member of parliament for the constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London had neither been representing his electorate nor supporting his party in the House of Commons. He had ignored a three-line-whip to vote in a key motion and had thereby rendered himself liable to a threat of suspension from his own parliamentary party.
(Never send to know for whom the division bell tolls. It tolls through the shires and across the seas, Mr. Johnson, for thee.)
The bars and beaches of the Caribbean had been crying out for him, and he wasn’t one to shirk such responsibilities. He’d always known where his duty, and his ultimate fate, lay. Somewhere terribly hot.
That was at least, perhaps uncharacteristically, consistent of him: he had for some months, even in his final weeks in office, been studiously ignoring the plight of the entire nation. That had obviously become someone else’s problem.
The poor chap had nevertheless been obliged to cut short his holiday in the Dominican Republic in order to fly back home to stake his renewed claim on the top job. Was there no end to the man’s selfless devotion to duty – a politician whose avowed commitment to public service is so very legendary that it may now be considered to have always in fact been something of a myth?
Was there anything that Boris Johnson wouldn’t do for his country? He’d even lie and cheat for us, after all. He’d certainly done his bit to keep us laughing through the worst of times, to prevent us becoming complacent as to the resilience of parliamentary democracy, and to revitalise and repopulate largely neglected areas of the Home Counties with a gamely flourish of his magic wand.
Dear God, he’d once got himself stuck on a zip-wire dangling above east London and waving a pair of union flags for us. If that’s not devotion to his nation, it's hard to see what is. To his fans, he’s a hero, a true-blue patriot, a cross between Douglas Bader, Jesus Christ, and Basil Brush. He has the soul of Winston Churchill in the body of Winnie-the-Pooh.
Last week, prior to his abrupt decision to pull out of the contest, the Johnson camp had already been reported as threatening MPs with deselection as Conservative candidates at the next election if they failed to back him. The vicious streak of ruthless ambition that lay beneath the cuddly public persona of bumbling Boris the big-hearted teddy-bear clearly hadn’t gone away.
(For he would awaken, they said, and his revenge, just begun, should shake the world.)
He and his loyalists had also repeatedly claimed that he had the required 102 Tory MPs signed up to back his bid to return to power, although only a few more than half of that number had publicly declared their support for him. His opponents, by contrast, believed that he had been forced to abandon his attempt to get back into Downing Street because he had been lying about the levels of support that he’d managed to attract. So, again, there was nothing new there.
Even as he dropped out of the contest, the old pretender was still claiming he would have won.
Now, said his followers, had not been the time to enumerate his several errors and minor transgressions – not when Britain, in crisis, was calling out to him to save them. But, if not then, many of his colleagues felt forced to ask, then precisely when?
His supporters had patently failed to understand that their last best hope of clinging onto power past the next election would be by voting for a leader who might put the needs of the nation above those of the party and above their own personal ambitions. They had failed to see the urgent need to do the right and honourable thing.
Of course, one can’t blame them. They’d hardly been set the best example by the moral vacuum of their idle idol.
When Foreign Secretary James Cleverly had tweeted his support for Johnson’s bid to get back into power, he had received thousands of angry responses. There are those in the Conservative Party who simply cannot comprehend the levels of public outrage that Johnson’s name provokes.
Mr. Cleverly had said that his old boss had ‘learned lessons’ from his time in Number 10. It was unclear what these lessons might have been. He’d certainly seemed as prone to bullying, dishonesty, and dereliction of duty as ever before.
We should be grateful then that the gilded bullet has, for the time being at least, been dodged. Yet so much of the media coverage and commentary of this contest had been accorded to the threat of Johnson’s return that very little consideration has been given to what kind of a leader Rishi Sunak might make.
During the summer’s contest, Mr. Sunak had been duped into taking part in an extended in-depth interview with one of the country’s toughest broadcast journalists. Liz Truss had also agreed to be interviewed but had cancelled at the last minute. This time he was taking no chances, and painstakingly avoided speaking to the press during his brief campaign. He even delayed the formal announcement of his candidacy until after the broadcast of the BBC’s biggest weekly political interview show. His strategy had been to be conspicuously inconspicuous.
We are therefore in the curious situation of having had no opportunity to question or scrutinise our new Prime Minister’s policy agenda. We don’t really know what his plans are at all, other than a vague pledge to fix the economy.
While Mr. Johnson and Ms. Mordaunt were busy taking the limelight, Rishi Sunak has sidled into power unopposed, unchallenged, and almost unobserved.
And so, we might now be forgiven for asking ourselves what kind of smooth-talking devil, his hour come round at last, now swaggers towards Westminster to be enthroned in Downing Street?
It remains to be seen whether, without a mandate from his party or his country, Mr. Sunak will manage to command sufficient respect from his disparate gang of MPs to be able to govern the country, let alone to restore the fortunes of its domestic economy and public services, and its reputation on the international stage.
But the fact that he is the nation’s first non-white leader is surely something to celebrate – just as the BBC’s longest-running TV drama prepares to welcome its first lead of ethnic minority heritage.
Today is Diwali, Hinduism’s great festival of lights. The most immediate horror of a wicked old premier’s return from the dead having been averted, All Hallows’ Eve now seems a little way away.
So, let’s hope his fractured party put away their knives and give Mr. Sunak at least that much of a chance, a short period of grace, a week’s honeymoon before the oncoming terrors of what seems an almost inevitable political Halloween.