Voices: Don’t believe the myth that Boris Johnson was betrayed and stabbed in the back

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The myth will be fed by the misfortunes of his successors (PA Wire)
The myth will be fed by the misfortunes of his successors (PA Wire)

Apart from grabbing as many perks as he can in his remaining weeks, Boris Johnson is carefully planting the seeds of a political myth that will sustain him and his supporters. It’s a version of the “stabbed in the back” theory beloved of many nations who’ve lost a war, and used by political losers (notably Donald Trump and other deposed dictators). Very soon, Boris Johnson will pose as the “lost leader”, the king over the water, Bonnie Prince Boris, a great man brought down by a conspiracy of unworthy enemies.

The “stabbed in the back” myth says that their fall from grace was nothing to do with their own mistakes and everything to do with the cowardice and treachery of others. Boris Johnson, he would like us to believe, was similarly betrayed. In his memoirs, which will no doubt be published as soon as possible to cash in, and in a plethora of newspaper columns and speeches, Johnson will make his case over and over again: that everything would have been so much better if only his idiot colleagues had held their nerve and kept the faith.

The myth will be fed by the misfortunes of his successors. If Sajid Javid, Penny Mordaunt, Jeremy Hunt or anyone else loses the next general election, Johnson will remind them that he won the 2016 referendum, and then in 2019 the biggest majority since 1997 and the highest vote share since 1979. “Only I could have led the red wall” will be his more or less explicit and unhelpful message.

That was broadly his implication in his graceless leaving speech – the first draft of the conspiracy theory. He told the nation how “eccentric” it was for this panicking “herd” of Tory MPs to get rid of him when he was only “a handful of points” behind Labour in the opinion polls. It was the “parliamentary” party, not the party in the country, still less the voters, who pushed him out.

No mention that many polls have shown double-digit Labour leads, that people were motivated to vote tactically through their personal loathing of him, and what he did in Partygate. The catastrophic by-election and local council losses are airbrushed away.

Johnson has to retain the illusion that he is a vote winner, even when those in the best position to judge, and with the most skin in the game – his MPs – had rightly concluded that he was now an electoral liability and would continue to be so because he wasn’t capable of the "psychological transformation" they knew was needed.

Before the end of the year, quite possibly, Johnson’s memoirs will be out to catch the Christmas trade, called something catchy like “Got It Done” or “Levelling Up”. This book will become the bible of the Cult of Boris. It will avoid his chequered private life, aside from the kind of charming images of Carrie and the kids we’ve seen lately, and will present a predictably mendacious and self-serving account of the multiple scandals that were his responsibility and his alone. Self-reflection won’t be a motif. He’ll paint witty, amusing and disparaging portraits of those he blames for his loss of office: the likes of Javid, Gove, Sunak and Graham Brady. For the lols he’ll ridicule Macron, Trump, Merkel and, of course, Putin.

He’ll take the credit for the vaccine rollout that was the work of Nadhim Zahawi (who’ll also be lambasted for treachery in his hour of need). He’ll gloss over the 150,000+ excess unnecessary deaths in the pandemic caused by his own carelessness. He will glamourise the battle for Brexit and blame the EU and the Irish for its failures. He’ll cook the economic statistics to try and convince us we’ve been living through a boom.

The constant theme of Johnson’s prolific writings will be “If only…”: “If only my MPs had kept their nerve”; “If only my ministers had stayed loyal”; “If only my successor had stuck to my vision”; “If only the media hadn’t misrepresented me”; “If only the Remoaners accepted the will of the people”. And so on.

The lost country of Borisland will be one where Brexit made us rich, communities were levelled up, taxes were slashed, there were no refugees crossing the Channel in dinghies, President Zelensky took Johnson on the victory parade through Kyiv, England won the World Cup, and the EU disintegrated because all the member states wanted to emulate Brexit. For his labours, he is made Duke of London.

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Johnson has a ready audience for that Conservative Shangri-la among his fan base, which is still out there in significant numbers. And its persistence will poison the government of his successors and Conservative politics for years to come. As his close and loyal ally Conor Burns has suggested, it will be very much like the myths and resentments that festered for years after dissident Tory MPs removed Margaret Thatcher from office in 1990. She turned into something of a “back-seat driver” for John Major and William Hague, constantly fomenting rebellions. Faint twinges of the trauma of Thatcher’s fall could be felt well into the present century, and even now. Michael Heseltine is not only cordially disliked by fellow Tories for being a Europhile, but also because he knifed Maggie all those years ago.

Rather ominously, Johnson plans to stay on as an MP after he’s retired from the premiership, which means he can criticise his successor from the back benches, as well as earn himself some useful pocket money (£84,144 plus expenses, plus pension) to add to the money he will earn elsewhere. He will not disappear.

Johnson is not a magnanimous man, or one who is especially loyal to his party or its past leaders (ask Michael Howard, David Cameron or Theresa May). If it pays to make trouble, he will make trouble. He is vain enough to spend the time and effort needed to nurture the myth that his premiership was a huge success, and that it was only ended prematurely because of the base instincts of others. It will be an inversion of the truth, or an inverted pyramid of piffle you might say, and exactly as you’d expect.

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