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The good news is that the worst prime minister in modern British history is going. The bad news is that he has not yet gone. Boris Johnson fought to the end to remain in Downing Street as his reputation and his government collapsed around him. On Thursday, as more ministers resigned, including one who had been in office less than 48 hours, he bowed to the inevitable, resigning as Conservative leader while remaining prime minister until a successor is chosen.
Mr Johnson went grudgingly and without grace. He left with a speech outside No 10 that was at once breezy and bitter. It contained no note of contrition for his own misconduct as prime minister, or any syllable of awareness of why a party that had rushed to embrace him three years ago has rushed to rid itself of him now. His capacity to do damage to his party and the country has not yet ended.
Mr Johnson presided over three turbulent years in Downing Street. Some of the turbulence was wholly predictable from his past behaviour in journalism and politics, and was his own fault. Some was caused by seismic global events that few, including him, saw coming. He traded on his charisma, which helped lead to his election victory in 2019, but his approach to governance was never serious or strategic, as Brexit exemplified. His conduct as prime minister was incompetent, corrupt and shameful. He should have gone months ago.
He claimed to understand the British people but, as the past torrid weeks have shown, he never shared or understood their moral decency. He behaved like a president, not a parliamentary leader. He governed by campaigning, not through collective deliberation and delivery. He abused his office by rewarding cronies and doing deals with donors. To the last, he was incapable of giving a straight answer to a straight question. He has now destroyed three Conservative governments in six years and done much to damage Britain’s international reputation. The party, and the British people, are well rid of him.
On Thursday, Mr Johnson departed in a defiant and petty address that lacked humility or any concern for anything other than himself. He brushed aside his ministers’ 11th-hour pleas for him to resign over the Pincher affair as “eccentric”. He condescendingly dismissed the concerns of MPs as “herd instinct”. And he offered the barely concealed threat to his successor that he would “give you as much support as I can”. If Tory MPs have not learned by now that Mr Johnson has no interest in or loyalty to them, they will never learn anything.
Instead, Mr Johnson cast himself as a leader betrayed, even referring to the Tories as “that party”, as though he was somehow not part of it. There was no note of apology, no word of thanks to any minister and no admission of even the slightest failure. This is all of a piece with Mr Johnson’s repeated attempts to pretend that the vote for the Conservatives in 2019 was a purely personal mandate and not one for the party. This false claim lay behind his attempts this week to threaten an early election if he was ousted. It is a dangerous, almost Trump-like narrative, and we are unlikely to have heard the last of it, or of him.
The shock of this week to the Tory party will be very great. How it evolves, and under what leader, will begin to become clearer soon. But the process will not and does not deserve to be easy. Mr Johnson created an idiosyncratic Conservatism based on Brexit nationalism, active government, high borrowing and his personality. Few Tory MPs and few of the potential candidates share that approach. The new leader will also be chosen by Tory members who are whiter, richer, older and more southern than the country as a whole. It is a crossroads moment for the party.
Mr Johnson leaves, as usual, indifferent to much except himself. Except that, in one important sense, Mr Johnson has not left. He is still prime minister today. Extraordinarily, he rebuilt his cabinet on Thursday morning at precisely the same time as he finally prepared his own resignation. He intends to stay for some weeks – potentially up to the Tory conference in October. Under previous prime ministers, such transitions were relatively uncontroversial. That is not the case with Mr Johnson, and for a simple reason. They could be trusted. He cannot. Labour is right to threaten a confidence vote if he tries to stay. The Conservative party must act quickly and ruthlessly to kick Mr Johnson out conclusively.