Who will rid us of this dreadful PM?
Published by The i paper (7th February, 2022)
If it was not so serious for the country, there would be something almost amusing about watching Boris Johnson’s career unravel before our eyes. He has spent his life fixated on the goal of becoming prime minister, even daring to see himself as a man of destiny on a par with Sir Winston Churchill. He created a clownish veneer to mask the hollowness of his soul and paucity of his ideas, then trampled on family, friends, party and nation to achieve his ambition. Now he sits a lonely figure in Downing Street, his true character exposed by his contemptuous behaviour, while close allies quit in despair, cabinet ministers distance themselves and Tory MPs demand his departure.
Yet he clings desperately to the premiership, patching up his shattered team of advisers, appointing a communications chief who called him “hugely divisive” and pretending his focus is on serious issues while obsessing, as always, with himself. This weekend, Johnson reportedly said “they’ll have to send a Panzer division” to drive him out of Downing Street, hoping enough supporters will ignore the stench of his rotting premiership to bail him out of trouble again. So we must suffer this unethical leader for longer, selfishly corroding both his party and political system while Britain faces a barrage of grave domestic and foreign concerns.
Johnson declines to say whether he will quit if becoming the first modern prime minister convicted of law-breaking in office. This would make it interesting when the Tories try to pose again as the party of law and order after disregarding lockdown rules and their drunken disorder in Downing Street. Diehard loyalists defend their leader with ludicrous claims: that he tells the truth, was ambushed by a cake and Partygate was a devious plot by Remainer lawyers. Meanwhile, his wife is targeted by misogynists. One source in a new biography pathetically claims Johnson “could have been a great prime minister” without her – yet it is the prime minister himself taking all the decisions.
There is nothing remotely surprising about these events swirling around Downing Street like a toxic cloud. The warning signs about Johnson’s character could not have been clearer if they were hung around his neck in flashing neon lights given his disreputable behaviour in journalism, politics and his private life. He is so self-obsessed, so lacking in morality, simply so nasty behind that jocular exterior, that when cornered in parliament over his “failures of leadership” on Partygate he lashed out with a lie to smear the opposition leader over “a horrendous case of child sex abuse”. These words were used by Munira Mirza in her stinging letter of resignation as his policy chief. Sadly she – like all the acolytes, aides and fellow-travellers hastily jumping from his side – shares responsibility for inflicting this awful prime minister on the country when so obviously wrong for the job.
It seems incredible there are not yet sufficient letters from Tory MPs to force a leadership contest. So the farce drags on with this busted flush of a government. One senior backbencher says it is inevitable Johnson will be removed. Others claim the magic number of 54 letters seeking a no confidence vote will soon be attained. Yet we read reports of a Conservative rebel MP bartering support for a knighthood, showing again the squalid depths of Westminster. So perhaps this diminished prime minister will survive a little longer until the next scandal, smear or sordid assault on decency provokes another flurry of letters from MPs worried about their survival.
The tragedy for the Tories as they slide in the polls is that Johnson reflects a party remoulded in his image. It has become boastful and deceitful, cavalier with cash, contemptuous about societal norms, elitist and entitled, in thrall to cronies, bereft of values, preferring headline-grabbing slogans and stunts to the hard grind of policy. Among its leaders are shallow people painfully out of their depth. There are, however, many good people still in the party, struggling against the tide and despairing over events. But the big question as they ponder their next leader is whether the post-Brexit Tory party can be salvaged or, like the Republicans in the United States, will the legacy of a bad apple leader be a party permanently defiled by his toxic populism?
Clearly any successor would be a very different type of person. And it is foolish to assume certainties in politics; remember talk that the Tories were finished in the far-off days of New Labour before they returned to rule over us under three different prime ministers? Yet any new leader must appeal to the ascendant right to win, the ultra-libertarians who loathe the state and hardcore Brexiteers who complain like communists their dismal creed would work if only given a chance. So is it too much to hope there are enough sensible people lurking in the Tory undergrowth who are tired of the depressing populist games – abusing asylum seekers, attacking the BBC, fighting fish wars, launching divisive culture battles, lying about statistics and rounding on judges to cover up their own failures?
Ironically, the last four Conservative prime ministers – Sir John Major, David Cameron, Theresa May and even Boris Johnson – were all searching for a form of One Nation Conservatism before being blown off course by the nativist right. They interpreted the concept very differently, from the liberal conservatism of Cameron through to the levelling-up agenda of Johnson, but all knew the only path to power was to broaden their party’s appeal. Yet their failures, the legacy of giving ground to the hard right, led us to this atrocious prime minister demeaning Westminster and despoiling the nation. As we see Johnson floundering for survival like a fish out of water, I fear it is too late for an injection of common sense to drive out the infection of populism in the Tories. But I hope I am wrong for the country’s sake.