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This is about the Conservatives as well as Boris Johnson. Never forget either that we would not now be getting a new prime minister and a “new” government if Johnson hadn’t fouled up the comms over the Chris Pincher affair.
A week ago, after he won the confidence vote, there was little serious effort going on to secure his imminent departure and every expectation that Johnson would wriggle and trick his way to the party conference and beyond. All those 50-plus ministers would never have resigned, never have wrestled with their consciences, never sent pompous letters about “integrity” if Johnson had published a factsheet and timeline about his dealings with Pincher soon after TheSun broke the story, a routine bit of Tory sleaze.
They backed Johnson through the Dominic Cummings scandal, through the resignations of two ethics advisers, through the scandal of a party donor paying for the decoration of his flat, through the mishandling of the pandemic and the mismanaging of Brexit with a rotten deal, Partygate and law breaking, an unlawful prorogation of parliament and breaking treaties and international law, allegedly trying to get Carrie a £100,000 job and Wilfred a £150,000 treehouse, depriving kids of free school dinners… and much, much more.
They went along with all that and they would have carried on with Johnson for months – if not years – more if he hadn’t humiliated some of them by giving them dodgy lines to take in media interviews. If Thérèse Coffey had been given better, more truthful briefings when she went on the Sophie Raworth show, Johnson would still be getting shameful, slavish support from the likes of Javid and Sunak.
So it’s not just Johnson who’s morally compromised, but the whole Tory party, with rare exceptions. They are all guilty men and women because they voted for him, campaigned for him, sustained him, lied for him and generally disgraced themselves and the country in the process. They were all members of the cult of Boris, and they knew exactly what he was.
They didn’t care because he was a winner. He hasn’t suddenly turned nasty – he was like this since about the age of eight. He’s outlived his usefulness to them, but if they thought the devil incarnate could win them the next election they’d be signing his nomination papers right now. Parties tend to get the leaders they deserve.
Be careful what you wish for, as the old curse goes. Getting rid of Boris Johnson, and in this manner, with his stubborn refusal to accept reality, means three things that will damage the country and his party grievously for years to come.
First, the new premier and their government will face exactly the same problems that Johnson faced and will also fail to resolve them. These will still be with us when a new premier is appointed: inflation and the cost of living crisis; the mess that is Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, and the breakdown of the Irish peace process; the approaching recession; the trade deficit and weak public finances; strikes and shortages; supporting Ukraine in the long run; and preparing for the next wave of Covid.
In all the events of the last few days, and the last few weeks and months for that matter, there is no sense that there are any alternative leaders with the policy solutions the country needs for all of these challenges. Apart from some vague and reckless plans to slash taxes and shred regulation, do any of them have a way to end stagflation? I’d love to see it.
A new Tory premier will change little fundamentally (or at least for the better), because so many of the problems the nation faces are down to Brexit, and the next government will, obviously, also be a Brexit government. That’s Johnson’s other toxic legacy.
Indeed, there is every possibility that the next leader will have to be even more hardline on Brexit and more authoritarian than the last incumbent, just to win the grassroots election. Your next PM, like Johnson, will be chosen by about 90,000 mostly elderly, reactionary and unrepresentative members of the Conservative Party. Just let that sink in. Awful.
There will be “more Brexit”, not less, and even more breaches of international law and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Imagine, if you will, Steve Baker or Suella Braverman as prime minister.
They’d be cheerfully walking away from the EU free trade agreement and opting for WTO terms of trade with Europe, with a bonfire of protections on employment, health and safety, animal welfare and product safety. How about leaving the European Convention on Human Rights? Dissenting from UN conventions on rights? Forcing migrant boats back in the Channel? Keeping Nadine Dorries on and ordering her to abolish the BBC in a fit of spite? The Tory membership love that kind of thing. The likes of Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi would also head in that same direction, albeit more gingerly.
These runners might well be more competent and honest than Johnson, but they would also be even more extremist, more divisive and even more aggressive towards Europe, refugees, human rights and the constitution. In other words, we might well not get that nice Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat in power, but an even more vindictive figure than Johnson instead.
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One of the many baleful legacies of Johnson is “cakeism”, but any attempt to deviate from that will force the kind of hard choices the party and country have tried to avoid for years – principally pretending that Brexit is compatible with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and with a thriving economy. Penny Mordaunt seems the most likely to try and muddle through, trying to make Johnson-style cakeism work, constantly splitting the difference and being blown around by the factions. She would be the closest to a continuation of Johnson, but without the jokes.
The Tory divisions on policy won’t disappear, and they’ll be exacerbated by this regicide. As Johnson’s most loyal and able ally, Conor Burns, warns, there will also be huge resentment at the manner of Johnson’s ousting among his substantial fan base in the country and the party. It is a version of the standard “stab-in-the-back” conspiracy theory.
The notion is that 14 million voters gave Boris Johnson a mandate in the 2019 general election and have been betrayed by a cabal of Tory MPs, abetted by a mendacious media. There was a coup, a plot, in this scenario, to frustrate the will of the people.
This is nonsense in a parliamentary democracy, but they believe that a prime minister should be removed only by the people in another general election. It is the same sort of myth that sustained the Thatcherites after her defenestration in 1990, and embittered their differences in Europe and poisoned Conservative politics for two decades.
Some people, believe it or not, love Boris Johnson and will regard any successor as an imposter. That is a further toxic legacy of his ungraceful exit.