As this summer has shown, no prime minister gives up power enthusiastically. Almost without exception, Britain’s leaders leave office in a foul mood somewhere between fury and fatalism. Herbert Asquith and Edward Heath stand out among former inhabitants of 10 Downing Street as two who could never come to terms with their falls. Both went to the same Oxford college as Boris Johnson.
Most prime ministers at least try to go with a show of acceptance, albeit through gritted teeth. A few – Arthur Balfour, Neville Chamberlain and Alec Douglas-Home among them – even served later in other prime ministers’ cabinets. The palm for good grace, though, goes to Stanley Baldwin, who reportedly told the police on the Downing Street door on his last exit in 1937 that he was departing with a spring in his step.
This will emphatically not happen when Johnson finally leaves in a month’s time. Some of the reasons for that are peculiar to Johnson, a reminder that he is a different kind of person and politician, and we shall return to them in a moment. Other reasons, however, are not.
Power is a drug. Politicians take it liberally. Having to give up power is painful and humiliating. In an extreme case, such as Donald Trump, the pain can cause delusions, although the US system has devised useful rituals of transition to soften the blow, which Britain lacks. But the pain of lost power is something that all leaders feel, even the wisest. Fighting against the removal of power is a natural reflex.
We know this from political history. But we also know it from mythology. At this moment I know it with particular vividness because Richard Wagner says it is so. I am writing this from Bavaria, while attending Wagner’s four-part Ring cycle of operas at Bayreuth this week. Yet even while Wagner’s music is unfolding, the echoes for Tory party politics are hard to escape.
That’s because the central theme of Wagner’s epic is the attempt by Wotan, lord of the gods, to hold on to world power by whatever means he can. Eventually, and crucially, Wotan accepts that his battle is lost and – this is Wagner’s lasting message – that something entirely new must replace the old order. Yet even Wotan remains believably petulant at the moment of actual loss, and thereafter he is a broken force.
Johnson is not the lord of the gods, although he once famously said he aspires to be world king. But, like Wotan and all people of power, he struggles to accept that he can no longer command the stage. In Johnson’s case, the struggle with this reality is an unequal one since it must contend with his narcissistic personality, his need for risk and the spotlight, and with the successes he has achieved by ignoring rules and conventions.
All of which provides the context for the bubbling belief among Johnson’s supporters and opponents that he is likely to attempt a comeback. It is a campaign for which he himself sowed the seeds with the narrative of “herd” betrayal in his Downing Street speech, his “hasta la vista” Commons signoff, and his recent remark that his ousting was the biggest stitch-up since the Bayeux tapestry.
It is also a belief that he does nothing to restrain, not merely among useful idiots who tell the Daily Express that a return is likely next year. Nadine Dorries and Michael Fabricant may seem D-list cheerleaders for a serious campaign. But this week’s YouGov poll, showing 53% of Tory members think Johnson’s ousting was wrong and putting him well ahead of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak as their preferred leader, will do nothing to dampen the talk about Johnson’s second coming.
If this is to happen, however, it is important to apply some of the realism which Johnson’s cheerleaders mostly avoid. Under current rules, Johnson must remain an MP in order to be a candidate in any Tory leadership return. This raises three issues.
First, Johnson must avoid being suspended after the Commons privileges committee reports on whether he misled parliament over Partygate, because this could trigger a byelection he mightlose. Second, he must hold his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency in the general election, which may not be easy, and has provoked malicious speculation that he may take over Dorries’s much safer Mid-Bedfordshire seat. Finally, he must decide what role he will play in the Commons from September.
This is the crux. It is as much a question of temperament as strategy. Temperamentally, Johnson seeks not only the spotlight but also revenge. He is naturally vindictive and disloyal, as his axing of a whole generation of one nation Tory talent before the 2019 election showed. Unlike, say, Margaret Thatcher, who talked the talk about getting her own back for her 1990 ousting but then failed to walk the walk, the incontinent part of Johnson that wants revenge will not be easily quieted.
Johnson’s real problem, though, is strategy. The avenging Johnson who is being built up by the Daily Express is a Johnson who would lead the Tory right from the backbenches and then challenge for the leadership. That may be plausible if Sunak wins in a month’s time, but not if Truss does. Truss is the right’s new leader now, and she is on course to lead the party. If Johnson wants a comeback, he can only wait for Truss to fail or try to engineer her failure. Neither is guaranteed. Both are messy.
It is possible that Johnson is about to launch a leadership revenge saga on the Tory party that would end by putting Hamlet to shame. On balance, it is unlikely. Johnson’s ego, though, will need an outlet. That is more likely to be through the media than parliament. He is a born performer. The broadcasters and press barons, including in the US, are likely to offer him the serious cash that he craves along with the chance to make waves.
Maybe we should think less about Johnson as the looming Trump of British rightwing politics, and think more about him as something almost as alarming. He could become a new kind of disrupter on the British scene, a rightwing media shock-maker, a role that Nigel Farage has dallied with but does not take seriously. Johnson would do so. He could become the British version of American populist broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, setting the agenda from outside the political system. He could make himself the man without whom nothing in politics can happen but who does not have to deal with the consequences. That kind of power and money without accountability would surely suit Johnson just fine.
Martin Kettle is a Guardian associate editor and columnist