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Great electoral victories always contain the seeds of eventual defeat. So wrote Matthew Engel, the Guardian columnist, after Labour’s landslide win in 1997. It took him a while to be proved right, when Tony Blair’s determination to deny the Conservatives space pushed him into alliance with a Republican US president. It has taken a shorter time to be realised in Boris Johnson’s case.
No one else could have won the election two years ago, by which I mean no one else could have bounced the opposition parties into allowing the election to be held. Johnson’s refusal to accept the constraints of normal politics meant he could do a deal with Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, that was worse than Theresa May’s – and sell it to his party as an improvement.
His willingness to play fast and loose with convention on proroguing parliament, and to take the risk of offending the Queen, produced the amazing luck of the Supreme Court ruling against him. It had no practical effect, yet it dramatised the story that he was blocked by the Remainer establishment, and deprived his opponents of their critical faculties.
Thus, Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn gave him the election he wanted, on the message “Get Brexit Done”, which appealed not just to the 52 per cent who had voted to leave the EU, but to a chunk of the 48 per cent who thought the referendum had to be acted on.
In the circumstances, an 80-seat majority was a poor return. For all the Tory myth-making of Boris the Magic Vote-Winner, he was a relatively unpopular prime minister, fortunate to be faced by an extremely unpopular leader of the opposition. But Johnson won the biggest Conservative majority for 32 years – and delivered Brexit – and for that you might have thought the gratitude of the Tory party, which contemplated oblivion in the spring of 2019, would last longer than an A-level politics course.
Except that when commentators wrote that Johnson would have no supporters when times were tough, because Tory MPs backed him only because they thought he could win, they meant it.
Blair had ministers, MPs and special advisers who rallied round repeatedly, because they believed in him, helping him fend off Gordon Brown long after the Iraq war had rung the bell for last orders. It was Johnson’s belated realisation that he needed his own faction that led to his disastrous attempt to save Owen Paterson, an MP of the Brexit old guard, from the consequences of his own wrong-doing. That and the U-turn the next day weakened Johnson, but the cause of his downfall is more fundamental.
He succeeded in life because “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception”, as Martin Hammond, his teacher, wrote in 1982, in a letter unearthed by Andrew Gimson, Johnson’s biographer. And now he is failing for the same reason.
He won the election because, as Hammond put it, he thought he was the “one who should be free of the network of obligation that binds everyone else”; now he is going to be forced out of No 10 because he thought the rules that he imposed on everyone else did not apply to him.
It is not yet clear when the end will come. But we know how it is coming. It happened almost by accident. Dominic Cummings, who was intermittently Johnson’s ally in exceptionalism, turned against him. Cummings understood how a rule-breaking approach to Brexit could work, disrupting assumptions and confusing opponents. He and Johnson understood the power of chaos, although Cummings eventually decided that Johnson was addicted to chaos without the steeliness of purpose or the urgency to make use of it.
But Cummings, despite his insight into how to win a referendum, had no idea how to turn public opinion against his former boss. He thought he would do it by accusing him, in a seven-hour select committee hearing, of mishandling the early response to the pandemic. That didn’t work. Or by publicising the prime minister’s “possibly illegal” plan to get Tory donors to pay to refurbish the Downing Street flat. That plan was abandoned and Johnson escaped again, admittedly with a bit of collateral damage.
It wasn’t until Cummings found himself in the frame, in the photo of Boris and Carrie in the Downing Street garden during the first lockdown, which was published before Christmas, that he stumbled on the prime minister’s weakness. That wasn’t a party, he said defensively; I was working. What we ought to be asking about, he said, was the gathering five days later, which he didn’t attend, but to which officials were invited to bring their own booze.
I don’t know if the leak of the Allegra Stratton video about a Christmas party had been inspired by Cummings, but the leak of the email invitation to the 20 May 2020 “drinks” certainly was, and that is what finally got the fuse to light. Cummings did not appear to realise the power of “one rule for them, another for the rest of us”, perhaps because he was too close to it, having fled to Durham himself and then appearing in that photo. But that is what did for Johnson.
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Prime ministers can survive a surprisingly long time after they have lost all visible means of support, as both Blair and Theresa May showed. Sue Gray’s report and the May local elections are the next dates invested with huge expectations, which will probably fail to be fulfilled. It may well be something else entirely that triggers Johnson’s actual departure.
But that he is going is suddenly an accepted fact. It cannot be long before Tory MPs start demanding a “timetable” for a “stable and orderly transition”, those hypocritical phrases of Brown’s siege of No 10.
There will be more opinion polls suggesting that a swathe of Conservative MPs would save their seats if Rishi Sunak led them into the next election. Johnson is on a one-way ratchet to the exit. The very qualities of rule-breaking and risk-taking that made him a success two years ago are those that make him a failure now.