I wonder whether the 7/7 is destined to be a fateful date. It was after all the date in 2005 when London was changed forever by a series of terrorist attacks. It will now also go down in history as the date of the resignation, if that is the word, of a man who is now recognised, even by his own side, as an outstandingly awful prime minister, perhaps the worst ever, and that in the face of some pretty strong competition.
The herd instinct
Could his resignation speech have been more terrible? It was characterised by the absence of the words “resign“ and “sorry“. He continued to blow his own trumpet and talk about his achievements, and perhaps in his narcissism and self-regard he will be surprised that far fewer of his party colleagues than before are prepared to echo this self-praise. On the contrary, they will be horrified by his dismissal of the mass resignations as being a manifestation of the “herd instinct“. When every single one of them had left it to the last possible moment to speak out, they must recognise such a description as both insulting and delusional.
Tory MPs will also have been horrified by Johnson’s failure to announce that he is handing over to a caretaker successor this very day. They are without doubt going around looking for ways to make this happen, if necessary through the 1922 committee. A change in the rulebook and a vote of no confidence is known to be capable of forcing a prime minister from office, but can it force him to do so immediately? This has never had to be put to the test, because there’s never been a situation where there was a reason to fear the prime minister could, like Trump and Sampson before him, try during his exit to bring the house down.
And of course bringing the house down is precisely what a zombie Johnson premiership would do. He has lost a large part of his Cabinet and ministerial team, either through resignation or, as in the case of Gove, through dismissal. Who among us even knew that they were as many as 50 people available to hand in their resignations? Since these various secretaries of state and ministers have declared that they cannot work with Johnson, they cannot reasonably return to office under him during his notice period. That will leave a great many backbenchers with neither a shadow of competence nor any ministerial experience, and undoubtedly many of them are waiting for the call from Johnson only so that they can refuse the offer. So we will limp along possibly until October with a cabinet which consists of a mixture of people who have already declared that Johnson must go (e.g. Zahawi), incompetents, and empty chairs. Again, perhaps, shades of Trump.
If there is no other means of ejecting Johnson, perhaps Keir Starmer will follow through on his threat to call a vote of no confidence in the house. The vote itself will not, of course, be passed, but that is not the point. It will place what now looks like being the majority of Tory MPs in the invidious position of being obliged to support a vote of confidence in a prime minister in whom they had already publicly declared they had none. How will that look to the electorate? Much better to find a means, any means, to defenestrate the man before he damages his party further.
And what about his successor? As always with Tory leadership battles, only a fool would try to predict the outcome. The choices are lamentably poor. For what it is worth, it looks as if Javid has given himself a possible head start by making his move before most of the others. And for some people his resignation statement was almost a Geoffrey Howe moment (for those who remember that far back). But at the moment Ben Wallace is the bookies’ favourite at 9/4. And the best thing that can be said of those 2 candidates is that they are not Dominic Raab, Suella Braverman or Liz Truss. There is nobody in Johnson‘s cabinet, and very few in the party, who has not repeatedly damaged him or herself and insulted the intelligence of the electorate by pledging support and asserting against all the evidence that Johnson is an honest man. That guilt by association will taint the party for years to come, and will make it unwise to attempt an election before the air has cleared and/or the electorate’s focus has moved on to other things. At the moment it is difficult to see anything in store for the Tories other than a humiliating defeat.
Johnson’s rule has been characterised by dishonesty and disrespect for international law. His successor will need to shake off that stigma. The first test of a change in direction will be whether the new PM is willing to abandon the manifestly illegal Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the Bill of Rights Bill, which is an attempt to assert that the UK is not bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, something of which it was a founding member. Watch this space.
The arsonist escapes
Johnson in office was an arsonist. He may finally have been stopped, not yet brought to justice (though perhaps out of office he will be susceptible to the very laudable efforts of Marcus Ball to hold him to account). Many of the fires he set off will burn on for a long time, and even after they are put out the damage will remain.
Six years ago, like many other people, I stopped myself forever from referring to London hire cycles as “Boris bikes“. If only we could, in the same way, airbrush the man out of this country’s history. It will not be easy, and frankly he has no plans to make it easier.
Ed: This article first appeared as Oxford for Europe Chair’s Blog and is reproduced with permission of the author.
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