For his sake, and Britain’s, now is the time for Boris Johnson to ride off into the sunset

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

At the end of The Magnificent Seven, most delightful of all westerns, there is a scene in which the elderly Mexican village sage says to Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen: “Your work is done.” It was time for the farmers to take over again. Following which, the two gunfighters rode away, to massacre evildoers elsewhere.

We shall dismiss scepticism about whether Boris Johnson can plausibly be compared to either Brynner or McQueen, but suggest that this is a good moment for the prime minister’s chums to put to him the old Mexican’s proposition: “Your work is done.” We might then return our governance to people willing to be interested not in farming, but instead boring stuff such as keeping the gas on and making sure children attend school.

What’s more, how do we keep Britain functioning between today and Christmas, when the foreign lorry drivers’ and turkey-feeders’ temporary visas will expire? There is no immediate prospect of evicting the incumbent from Downing Street against his, or perhaps Mrs Johnson’s, wishes.

It may be possible, however, to start convincing the couple that their interests would be well served by an early bath. The prime minister could tell his host of admirers that he has delivered Brexit and the Covid vaccination programme and averted a Corbyn premiership.

Whatever view we take of his record, he is assured of many pages in the history of the times. Only Nigel Farage has been more influential in reshaping our politics. Johnson can resume his rightful career as an entertainer. His memoirs, entwined with the diaries that he has assuredly been keeping (to the discomfiture of everyone who has spoken to him privately since he took office) will be worth millions. He might explore new terrain by becoming a devoted family man.

Almost none of the above is designedly facetious. If Johnson quits soon, he can remain famous, become rich and escape the protracted descent awaiting him if he lingers, eventually to vanish beneath the flock of poultry returning to roost in Downing Street.

Who would follow? To many of us, Rishi Sunak seems the only acceptable answer. It is true that we still know relatively little about him, because of his rapid ascent from Winchester head boy, through obscure backbencher to chancellor. He would be handicapped by the impossibility of matching Johnson’s feelgood skills with all manner and condition of people. But he possesses star quality, grace, dignity, integrity, a sense of responsibility and gravitas, such as none of his cabinet colleagues can match. He does not taunt Johnny Foreigner. He was not a member of the Bullingdon club.

His most immediate and important task would be to appoint ministers for their competence, rather than for mere loyalty to their patron. It would be foolish to pretend that the Tory backbenches are bursting with stars in waiting, but Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat would improve on Priti Patel and Nadine Dorries.

A habit has grown up in the media, as well as in the country, of displaying a courtesy towards members of this government that is only justifiable by their possession of state offices and the shrugged mantra “there is no alternative”, rather than any objective assessment of their performances.

It now seems time to say: we cannot go on like this, with Sunday outings at the mercy of such a figure as Grant Shapps. Johnson had a chance to use last month’s cabinet changes to replace proved incompetents with people more worthy of their offices. He chose instead to shuffle the boobies. In this, he flaunted the arrogance made possible by a majority of 80 and a moribund opposition. Whatever the case for Johnson, he mocks voters with his choice of subordinates.

We should recognise that, even if the chancellor sooner or later moves next door in Downing Street, he will face intractable challenges. Roy Jenkins once said that he could not recall any prime minister assuming office at the fag end of a long period of one-party rule who proved able to make anything decent of it. He was thinking of Alec Douglas-Home, Jim Callaghan and John Major; since Jenkins’s death, Gordon Brown’s experience reinforces his point. Even if Sunak proves a virtuoso lion tamer, horse whisperer and snake charmer, he will lead a party of which the electorate is inescapably growing weary. Many of the problems, especially energy, derive from failures by David Cameron’s government or earlier and are not susceptible to quick fixes.

If we find it difficult to deal with the United States under the Biden administration, consider the likelihood that 2024’s election will propel into the White House Donald Trump or somebody like him, who “does not do allies”. A new prime minister might, however, begin a reset of relations with our European neighbours, such as is impossible under Johnson. He could rebuild the electorate’s faith in the rhetoric of those in charge, make promises that he has at least some modest aspiration to fulfil. He can be trusted with money, both his own and other people’s. He seems to possess moral authority, a quality that should still matter for people who aspire to rule.

With hindsight, we can see the last decade as a period when, for most of us, it was jolly comfortable to be British; we seemed able to have it all and made self-indulgent choices accordingly. We have entered a new era, in which a tension exists and a collision is threatened between our loneliness, worsening economic realities and the admirable aspirations of a new generation to be greener, nicer and work less hard.

Somebody is going to have to tell the young that this virtue must be paid for and that, for instance, workers who stay at home more should expect to be paid less. They will not like that message and will not applaud a prime minister who delivers it. But that is one among many reasons why we need a responsible national leader, sooner rather than later.

Johnson has a window to quit Downing Street on his own terms and return to doing what he does best: telling adoring audiences what they want to hear. The old Mexican in the movie could scarcely assure him that his work is done. But as much of it has been accomplished as is ever likely to be on his watch.

• Max Hastings is a former editor of the London Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph, where Boris Johnson was a correspondent