I have written far too much about Boris Johnson already, I know. Everyone has. The country has been through a tumultuous dalliance with him over the past few years and still can’t stop talking about it. Whether they voted for him or not, people feel the way some of his disappointed wives must have felt. As his ministers began to resign en masse, the Leader of her Majesty’s Opposition asked if this was the first case of a ship leaving the rat. In truth, it was a love rat his ministers were leaving.
There are many ways in which Johnson stood out from other prime ministers, starting with his hair – the style was in flagrante delicto – but also the odd way he combined a posh accent with the air of some random bloke. These traits, either involuntary or carefully honed, persuaded people he was one of them. Why, one wonders, since they so rarely spoke the same way, or left a trail of abandoned offspring? They surely weren’t taken in by the cos-play for which he became notorious, the endless hi-vis jackets and hard hats, the nob impersonating the workers, like Henry V in disguise mingling with his soldiers, or some malign George Orwell (also educated at Eton) down and out in Gateshead. Was that the posh boy’s guilty conscience showing, or an answer to the charge that he never did a hard day’s work in all his puff? Doubtful. In any case, no one was convinced: the way he turned up after a flood and handled a mop, languidly, as if he was stirring a vodka martini; the distracted way he laid a brick; the absent-minded way he peered through a microscope in a lab coat; the way he gave being a prime minister a go. These were all of a piece: pure Boris.
When the plague was on, our local market experienced a rare hiatus in its five-hundred-year history. One Saturday, though, I remember finding the local market stalls back up. The first lockdown was creeping to a close, apparently. I asked the woman running the grocery stall if she thought they would be back again the following week. “That all depends on whether Boris will let us!” she announced, breezily. The giveaway first name, as if she’d spoken to him that morning.
It seemed like ages before people unlearnt the habit of referring to Boris as ‘Boris’. Even the Guardian’s sketch writer, who clearly despised the man, persisted in calling him that, to the huge chagrin of the Guardian readers who left comments beneath the line. For the voters, Boris was one of those rare celebrities graced with a forename. Cameron had started it, responding to questions about the blond beast with a shrug and ‘that’s just Boris’, as if there were different laws in a parallel universe set aside for the ‘greased piglet’ (the other name Cameron gave him) to inhabit. Cameron’s comments were rueful; the public had never called him ‘Dave,’ however needily he’d invited them to. But for Boris it was different, people seemed to forget the man had a surname, just as they did with Madonna or Beyoncé. Maggie, there was another one.
Among the Tories the condition was even more serious, especially after the famous victory of 2019. For them, he was something akin to a cult. You only have to look at the Daily Mail’s depiction of him as Gulliver, the great man fettered in his sleep and pinned down by the Lilliputians, like Aslan in Narnia, like the blond Christ of the nineteenth century illustrations, his innocence cruelly punished by swarthy types with dark hair, or men with combs, or just vindictive hairdressers.
Ah yes, the much-maligned Daily Mail, the paper run by a man in desperate need of a peerage, the same paper accused to this day of wanting to appease Hitler (The Daily Heil is its nickname among the lefties) and shouting hurrah as the fascist black shirts rampaged through the East End. For the Daily Mail, Boris was a sacrificial lambkin, a harmless Just Boris who had brought his charisma to save the Tory party and all it stood for, only to be stabbed in the back, turned upon by his ministers, his erstwhile lackeys, the midgets. I hate to intrude on private grief, but didn’t Gulliver piss on the palace later in the story, in order to put out a fire? That would definitely have been the excuse of a prime minister who dared lie to the Queen.
The fact is, Boris/Gulliver would let no minor setbacks, like being forced out of office, ruffle him. Look at his insouciant ‘resignation’ speech at the lectern. Stiff upper lip, what! Never apologise, never explain. If Boris is vaguely familiar with Gulliver’s story, he knows the best is yet to come. Reduced from towering colossus in Lilliput to the twelve-inch pianist of the old joke in Brobdingnag, he will find everyone’s gigantic there, including the doting Maids of Honour, who will treat him like their doll. Thus, Boris will be cut down to size. His political life will be at an end, but he will promptly go to philanderer’s heaven.
In the British press, the Express is best known for perpetuating the myth of Princess Diana long after her martyrdom at the hands of the paps. It looks likely that the Daily Mail will be perpetuating the myth of Boris, at least as long as it takes for Paul Dacre to be ennobled; that is to say, until Boris announces his resignation honours list. But sniping aside, the way things are going, the prime minister’s sacred memory may well outlast that of the people’s princess, and his was only the death of a political career. If he ever literally pays his debt to nature – and you can see immediately what an unlikely event that would be – Boris will become a god.
For the rest of us, it was definitely time to put all the idolatry behind us, even the Tories knew that. Fitting in a way that one of the first to strike a blow was the very man to have done it previously, a man skilled, therefore, in administering the coup de grace. Step forward Michael Gove. While the other ministers resigned in their droves, Gove was the only one to get sacked for whispering in the general’s ear that he was only mortal, that the game was up, then letting it be known what he’d whispered. Downing Street rather cutely made it known in their turn that Gove was a ‘snake’. Take a moment to absorb the rich irony of that appellation. It’s odd really, as I’d always had him down for something far less salubrious than a snake, but perhaps we can put it down to Johnson’s lingering affection for his old comrade.
It was Nye Bevan (long before Angela Rayner) who referred to the Tories as ‘lower than vermin,’ but I think one should reserve that term for people like Gove, who stand out even among their fellow Conservatives as exceptionally verminous. The snake is a more fitting symbol for the party as a whole, not least as it symbolises eternity, and what we have just witnessed is the survival trick that the snake pulls off after yet another self-inflicted crisis. It sloughs its old skin. Over the past twelve years of the Tory hegemony, they’ve done this three times. Credit where it’s due, the Labour Party under Gordon Brown also did it, once, but like most things Gordon Brown it didn’t work. Learn from the masters. The country thinks they blinked and missed a General Election and, oh look, we have an entirely new government! Snakes look great when they’ve just sloughed; they positively glisten.
So yes, the Tories must have taken heed of Dua Lipa when she sang (in that saccharine tone of hers) “Aren’t you the guy who/ Tried to/ Hurt me with the word/ Goodbye?” Knowing he would hurt them one day, that great big bundle of lovable, charismatic charm they’d cooed over so much, they got their pre-emptive goodbyes in early. Fifty of them and counting were quietly meditating resignations as the fallout continued, this time over a deputy chief whip by the name of Chris Pincher who had been allowing his hands to wander in the Carlton Club. The prime minister finally admitted he had been informed that ‘Pincher by name, Pincher by nature’ (his own quip, strenuously denied) was not an entirely reformed character before recruiting him, and yet claimed he had forgotten the briefing to this effect. Thereafter, meditations began to crystallise in the form of resignation letters. In the olden days, a flurry of them would have appeared on the door mat of Number Ten. In this enlightened age of social media, the letters kept getting tweeted to the media with comical frequency. By sheer coincidence, the Health Secretary announced his resignation just moments before the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced his. It looked like a conspiracy. One Tory even tweeted his resignation from a committee room while he was supposed to be grilling the prime minister. Chuntering from a sedentary position (as Mr Speaker used to call it) had never taken such a sly form. If farts were rebels, this one would have been the silent assassin.
The prime minister had been out of the country as the scandal began. Over in abroad (I believe it’s called Rwanda), the intrepid, massively over-sized Gulliver had been strutting about on the world stage even as the first serious plots, like so many snake eggs, were being hatched. Asked by bothersome reporters if questions over his leadership were settled yet, he said: “Yes.” He then added: “What’s driving people nuts is this endless churn of stuff about things that I’m meant to have stuffed up, or whatever, about my colleagues, their view of me, my character, the leadership, Tory blah blah.”
Now the term ‘stuffed up’ was new to me, but we have known for a long time that Boris Johnson has his own private language for special occasions. At the dispatch box, on what turned out to be his last day in office, he rounded on Sir Keir Starmer and denounced his ‘crasheroonie snooze-fest’. There must have been times when Hansard admitted defeat.
What struck me more, though, was that phrase he used in Rwanda, ascribing his woes to ‘Tory blah-blah’. It is well known, and barely ever analysed, that the political grouping which formally describes itself as the Conservative and Unionist Party (stop giggling at the back) is more commonly referred to as the Tory Party. The reasons for this are lost in the mists of time – Irish mists, to be precise – but the term is colloquial and often has a trace element of, let us say, irreverence. Bevan’s acutely irreverent use of the word is significant. It is often the critics of the party who refer to its members in this way, so its use by an actual Tory prime minister, the incumbent, and the way he dismissed his fellow Tories’ ‘blah-blah,’ tells us a lot about him.
I am old enough to remember the figure Boris Johnson cut when he first reappeared on the Tory back benches. He never struck me as a clubbable type, the sort of MP who would put a lot of effort into winning over potential allies. In fact, he appeared isolated. He would stand up, hair the customary living insult to the hairdressing profession, and mumble “Does the honourable member agree that the good people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip…?” or something equally trite, while a small band of followers that you could number on the fingers of one hand tried to look attentive in a little halo around him. In those days, when he had recently been London mayor but was now an isolated member of parliament, his loyal supporters could barely achieve the quorum for a circle jerk. The rest of the parliamentary party were ostentatiously unmoved. There was never any likelihood that Boris was there to represent the interests of the good women of Uxbridge, though he is rumoured to have promised a lot more to the good women of South Ruislip. The membership of the party liked him well enough, but the Tories in parliament didn’t – he was never a party man – and the feeling was mutual. When they decided to make him their leader, they mistook him for a figurehead. He had this inexplicable appeal to the public, you see. From the very start, it was the Tories who bolted Johnson on to the party apparatus, not because they liked him, but because the voters did. And Johnson returned the compliment: he didn’t like ‘the Tories’ one bit.
This was what made it so easy for Rachel Johnson, in her role as radio pundit, to deliver the eulogy on her brother’s political demise. All Boris had tried to do (and for once you could forgive a person for using his first name) was give the party a stonking majority, get Brexit done and become world king. Was that so much to ask, when you were a world-historical genius like Boris? Oh, and win the war against Putin. And roll out a world-beating vaccine programme, obviously. And write a brilliant book about Winston Churchill. Claims that he and his wife Carrie had overspent on their Downing Street flat were poppycock. In reality, they didn’t even own a salad bowl, and lived like veritable paupers. It was impossible to over-state what her brother had done, not just for a grateful nation, but for the entire world, by hosting international conferences in Cornwall, and did I mention the war in Ukraine? But most importantly of all, he had won a huge mandate from the British people. Literally millions of British voters had defied the parliamentary system of government and elected him their president, only for a treacherous bunch of ministers, junior ministers and ineffable minnows to terminate his presidency with unspeakable…
It was a bit like the story of that great Churchill chappie. As Richard J Evans told us in his New Statesman article entitled ‘The Churchill Factor: One man who made history, by another who just makes it up’:
‘Churchill [according to Boris], “spoke in short Anglo-Saxon zingers”. He was a “rogue elephant” in the Tory party. He made a career as a highly paid journalist. He was definitely not a “lefty-liberal Milquetoast”. “He was no party-pooper.” He was “incorrigibly cheerful” and his verbal style was both “demotic and verbally inventive”. He “incarnated something essential about the British character – and that was his continual and unselfconscious eccentricity”. Now, who is this meant to remind you of?’
Funny how the Tories repeatedly model themselves on dead predecessors, while actually reducing these ghosts to pallid reflections of themselves.
Also, notoriously, Boris concluded that the Germans had managed to capture Stalingrad.
But wait a minute, this pedantic carping aside, let us remind ourselves how great the man was, is, and ever shall be, and how his ignominious end resembles in no way that of Churchill, who was voted out of office by the British people after the war, whereas the far greater tragedy in the case of Boris was that a conspiracy of pusillanimous underlings did for him. His dignified (though not readily comprehensible) words, delivered at a lectern that might so easily be mistaken for a pillory, will echo down the ages: “Them’s the breaks!”
Some of his support may have been a little too fulsome:
I ought to admit that I have experienced more than my fair share of sleepless nights since Boris came to power, and not for the right reasons. When he illegally prorogued parliament, for instance, I barely got a wink for three days. When he refused to resign despite the resignations, my sleep began to suffer again. It was the way he kept talking about his stonking mandate and the millions who had elected him as president that worried me. Then, when he emerged to give a resignation speech without actually using the word resign, I lost a week’s sleep, and let me tell you, a week’s a long time in ‘Britain Trump’ politics. That’s the meaning of populism, after all, appealing over the heads of your party to the base that elected you. Sadly for Boris, his base had dwindled to the immediate circle of ‘the member of parliament for the eighteenth century’.
Jacob Rees-Mogg (Eton) actually went on the new-fangled television and claimed that his fervent hope was that Boris would outlast Walpole. Twenty-one years. Of course, Rees-Mogg could confidently predict that the nation’s memory would not stretch to its very first prime minister, the only one arguably worse than the present one.
How events have moved on. Democracy, no longer in peril, has revived in all its gory, sorry, glory, and the Tory party has returned to its comfort zone, sucked into the vortex of a leadership race with the contenders for Johnson’s job tearing strips off each other in public.
Or at least they were until today, the 18th of July. They were supposed to be tearing strips off each other tonight, on Sky, but the whole thing collapsed when Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss pulled out. What a pity, you might think, if you viewed Tory politics with the same relish as you viewed a heat wave, seeing it as a perfect opportunity to grill flesh in the torrid open air. If the leadership race was an exercise in voyeurism for most of the country, given the tiny numbers of card-carrying members who would decide who became the next prime minister – some 200,000 of them – then things had been getting distinctly graphic of late. For anyone with the party’s best interests at heart, it was no longer mere blah-blah; it had turned into a full-scale bar-barbecue. Here is Paul Goodman, writing on the Conservative Home website under (I kid you not) a gruesome picture of a blood-smeared meat cleaver:
‘Why on earth did the Conservative candidates in this contest sign up to be the victims of this political version of The Hunger Games? […] I’m afraid the answer is a) none of the candidates dared stand up to the broadcasters, even if they wanted to, and b) the institutional Party hasn’t the clout to put a stop to it. Did it not occur to any of the candidates and their teams, when they saw the ITV format, that it was the equivalent of the Hunger Games’ cornucopia gambit – in which the contestants bludgeon, knife, shoot and strangle each other to death in order to get at vital supplies? Having the nastiest punchline might floor your opponent. But will it help you form a stable government if you win? Tory MPs and activists will have watched in horror as several of the candidates […] tore into the record of the Government in which all of them bar one have served. Or sought to distance themselves from policies which they have supported, or are committed to support. Or publicly snubbed the leader who all but one of them have served in office...’
That, surely, is the rub. Johnson has been thrown out, accused by his treacherous ministers of being a liar and a rogue, yet the contenders for his job must somehow behave with the utmost civility as if nothing has happened. No one can declare themselves the continuity candidate for fear of appearing tainted, and equally no one can declare themselves the change candidate, lest they trash the Ancien Régime. At this vulnerable time, the snake must be left to slough its skin in some quiet corner somewhere. Then, and only then, can it emerge as the new/old, old/new government.
‘“Looking at the papers, in future Conservative Campaign Headquarters should negotiate with broadcasters on formats of debates. It is best placed to broker a format which doesn’t disintegrate into a blue-on-blue knife fight,” says one observer. Amen to that.’
Oh dear, there’s always some spoil-sport. This was a barbecue the whole party had been planning for months, in some cases years. As the Daily Mail demanded, plaintively:
Well, either they have defenestrated their greatest electoral asset, OR a buffoon the country had stopped referring to as ‘Boris’ and would never elect again. But for what exactly? For a woman who looks like a poorly executed wax model of Margaret Thatcher melting in the extreme summer heat?
Or a rich smooth-talker who sounds (try closing your eyes while he’s speaking) like Tony Blair in his pomp?
As a willingly voyeuristic outsider, one is bound to ask just how many times the Conservative and Unionist Party can survive itself.