It’s early morning in London, and dawn will soon be breaking on what is expected to be the last day of Boris Johnson’s prime ministership. A steady stream of resignations, beginning on Tuesday evening with health secretary Sajid Javid and chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, and pressure from his colleagues have made his position untenable – although he is yet to officially recognise that fact.
Readers will remember that Johnson won a vote of confidence in the Conservative party room a month ago by the unconvincing margin of 211 to 148. I said then (and I was not the only one) that it was “very hard to see how he can recover from here,” and that the fact that he was theoretically free from another challenge for twelve months provided little protection: “One way or another, a hostile majority is certain to have its way.”
And so it is now proving. Overnight the prime minister was defiant, even Trumpy, but the majority of his party has clearly turned against him. If he fails to move, then it’s almost certain that the backbench 1922 committee will next week approve a rule change to permit a new vote to be held, and that it will vote for a change of leader.
That will mean a ballot of party members (like the one that elected Johnson three years ago), and there’s a complete lack of consensus as to who might emerge victorious. If you want to see a wide open betting market, have a look at the leadership odds at Sportsbet, where there are currently eight runners at single-digit odds.
Junior minister Penny Mordaunt is a surprising favorite at 4-1, followed by defence secretary and Johnson loyalist Ben Wallace at 5-1, Sunak at 11-2, Javid and foreign secretary Liz Truss at 7-1, and Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat and Nadhim Zahawi all at 9-1. But Johnson has reached the point where the lack of an agreed alternative is not enough to save him.
How did it come to this? There has never been any shortage of Johnson critics, and they are having a field day in the media today. Best, perhaps, is Simon Jenkins in the Guardian:
The wilful self-delusion of Johnson through one Downing Street fiasco after another could possibly pass muster if it were thought to conceal a steely sense of purpose. But it won’t because it conceals nothing but a feckless ambition, still bolstered by the slavish support of a band of second-rate cronies.
… He seemed genuinely not to care about openness or truthfulness or to understand what part they should play in the exercise of power.
Bernard Keane yesterday in Crikey, in an otherwise very acute piece, described him as “a stupid person’s idea of a smart person,” but I’m not sure that’s right. (It better fits Newt Gingrich, of whom I first heard it, although the line is older than that.) Rather, I think Johnson is a warning that intelligence is no proof against a fundamental lack of seriousness.
Donald Trump, by comparison, fell into “politics as trolling” at least in part because he was intellectually incapable of anything different. That doesn’t seem to be the case for Johnson; he was a perfectly competent mayor of London for two terms. Trolling was a consciously adopted persona, which gradually took over, to the extent that he has no well of seriousness left to draw from when he needs it.
In politics as in life, you can’t just go back to the point where you made a wrong turn and start again. Johnson became a Brexiter in 2016 as a cynical move to position himself for the Tory leadership. Contrary to his (and most other people’s) expectations, the referendum was carried and he became a prisoner of the Brexit cause. That eventually carried him to the top job, but it also taught both him and the party all the wrong lessons about success in politics.
Now it has all come apart. He will fall just short of the length of tenure of his predecessor, Theresa May, who became a byword for prime ministerial ineptitude. Johnson’s failure is in a way less excusable: May was a victim of circumstances (although she showed herself woefully incapable of dealing with them), but Johnson really has no-one to blame but himself.
It’s an old saying that the problem with political jokes is that sometimes they get elected. The great failing in the Johnson story is not that he was a joker, but that so many people who knew that nonetheless supported him, because they thought that a good joke was more important than good policy, or honesty, or integrity.