If the Tory party brings back Boris Johnson, it really will be fit only for a straitjacket | Andrew Rawnsley

He, more than anyone else, more even than her, is culpable for the catastrophe of the Truss premiership

Contemplating a regime of churning chaos presiding over extreme financial volatility, some market analysts no longer treat Britain as a G7 country and bracket us with emerging markets. This is unfair. There are many developing countries with much more stable governments and predictable policy programmes than ours. Three prime ministers in three months. Four chancellors in four months. Three home secretaries in less than two months. It is anarchy in the UK with the punk Tories.

Liz Truss will not just go down as the briefest prime minister in our history. She will also be recorded as one of the most calamitous. Many previous occupants of the office have had four or more years at Number 10 without doing the damage she inflicted in 44 days. Tories will now try to turn this unique entry in the book of atrocious political records into a kind of alibi for the rest of them.

As they rush to find a replacement, it will become convenient for Conservatives to portray her short reign as a fever dream from which everyone has now gladly awoken. Mad Queen Liz who put a torch to the British economy? Nothing to do with them.

To use a technical term, this will be a pyramid of bollocks. It requires us to ignore how many figures from the Tory firmament either supported Ms Truss from the outset or sycophantically endorsed her once they calculated she was going to seize the throne. I mean you, Ben Wallace, Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid. And you, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Penny Mordaunt. And I mean many more Tories than I have space to mention. Either they thought her wild gamble would come off, in which case their judgment is as cracked as hers. Or they knew she was a dangerous person with a reckless programme, but backed her nevertheless for career-serving reasons, which is even more disgraceful. She didn’t take Britain to the brink all by herself.

Ms Truss was a disaster, but she was not an accident. Something has gone fundamentally wrong with a party when it hands the premiership to someone so manifestly wrong for the job. And that’s twice in a row, remembering that she was preceded by Mr Johnson. And it will be a hat-trick of wilfully diabolical decisions if the Tories are so deranged that they re-crown the clown prince.

Ms Truss should be seen not as a freakish aberration, but as a fit with the trajectory of the Conservatives over their dozen years in office. It began in 2010 with a different kind of economic experimentation, the austerity imposed by David Cameron and George Osborne on the promise that gruel today would mean jam tomorrow. The financial markets liked their medicine, but it failed to rejuvenate the patient. This duo promised a thriving Britain that has never turned up. They ushered in an era of chronically low growth and stagnant or near-frozen living standards for everyone but the most affluent. This fuelled discontent and the anger found an outlet provided by the foolish Mr Cameron. He set the pattern for the Tory premierships of this period when he self-immolated by putting Brexit to a referendum he glibly believed he could not lose.

Having unleashed the furies, Mr Cameron trotted off in search of truffles, leaving Theresa May to try to clear up the midden he had left behind. Could Brexit be made to work without inflicting severe distress on the British economy? Poor old Mrs May spent three years trying to find an answer to what was a trick question.

The more recent chapters of Tory mayhem and fratricide have overlaid memories of the savage internecine conflict of that miserable period. Parliamentary paralysis led to the Tories’ desperate pact with the electoral devil when they put Mr Johnson in Number 10. That looked like a cunning ruse when he won his party a chunky majority in 2019. It does not look so clever less than three years later when the polls suggest the Tories will be disembowelled by the voters when they get their hands on them in polling stations. The devil will demand his price.

The toxic twins of Brexit and Borisology turned the Tories into a party prey to delusions. Competence and commonsense, qualities that Conservatives once regarded as the hallmarks of their party, were displaced by cakeism and cultism. Voices of reason were stifled or purged from their ranks. It became ever more conspicuous that Brexit was not delivering what was promised, but they couldn’t cope with that much reality, so they took refuge in the fairytales peddled by Ms Truss. She won the Tory leadership by telling the Conservative party things it wanted to hear, however obviously false they were. Thanks to Mr Johnson and the Brexit gang, the Conservative party had become pre-conditioned to prefer fantasy worlds to the real one and favour beguiling mendacities over tough truths.

No one acquainted with this baleful history would assume that the Conservative party will now come to its senses. Incredible as it is to anyone looking on from outside, there is an agitation for the return of the sleazy charlatan who was defenestrated from Downing Street in disgrace three months ago. I am usually averse to using the word insane, but the Conservative party really will be fit only for a straitjacket if it chooses to restore Mr Johnson to Number 10. Lest anyone has forgotten, that serial debaucher so debased his office with his law-breaking and his lying, and clung on so shamelessly long after he should have left, that it took a mass ministerial revolt, including the resignation of many of his hand-picked cabinet, to heave him out. Johnson cheerleaders who promote him as their party’s electoral saviour conveniently forget how repellent he is to voters after a cascade of scandals, including, but not limited to, Partygate, the Owen Paterson business and the Chris Pincher affair. The lies he told to the Commons are the subject of a live investigation, which could result in his suspension from parliament.

He, more than anyone else, more even than herself, is culpable for the catastrophe of the Truss premiership. Dominic Cummings was the first to advance the idea that Mr Johnson backed her, and told his acolytes to do the same, in the belief that she would self-destruct, opening the door for him to return. Many thought that theory too outlandish; I didn’t. That’s exactly how his utterly cynical, absolutely selfish mind works, though I doubt he anticipated she’d blow up quite as rapidly as she did.

A Conservative party with any sense of self-preservation would not even be flirting with the thought of a Johnson redux, which could be the trigger for the final implosion of the party. Some Tory MPs are already saying they would resign the whip, defect to the opposition benches or quit parliament. That is how revolted, and rightly so, they would feel about that amoral scoundrel moving back into Number 10.

Rishi Sunak will attract the most support from Conservative MPs, but that’s no guarantee he will win if the contest is decided by a ludicrous online vote among Tory activists. Should Mr Sunak become prime minister, his allies say that he will endeavour to restore at least some semblance of seriousness to government. Over time, he will hope that the Conservatives can claw back credibility with the financial markets and respect among voters. The biggest fact about the next prime minister is that they will preside over a punishing combination of tax rises and spending cuts. The pain was foreshadowed by Jeremy Hunt when the chancellor spoke of “eye-wateringly” difficult decisions. The hurt will almost certainly be even more severe under a renewed Johnson premiership because financial markets will demand a “Boris premium” for the additional risk of lending to Britain if the Tories are demented enough to go that way.

In their beginning was their end. Whoever becomes prime minister, we are going back to Tory austerity. The sequel will feel much worse because it will be accompanied by the ravaging effects on living standards of higher inflation and elevated borrowing costs.

Sir Keir Starmer is right to demand a general election and sensible to expect that the Tories are not likely to concede one when they face electoral evisceration.

They will not be able to forever avoid a verdict from the voters. And their opponents have already been furnished with the question to put to the country: what was the point of all these wasted years of Conservative misrule – except to make most Britons poorer and turn our country into an object of ridicule and pity abroad?

• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer


Andrew Rawnsley

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Observer view on how Boris Johnson’s spectre haunts the Tory leadership race | Observer editorial
His toxic legacy runs deep in Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss as well as in a party high on populism

Observer editorial

24, Jul, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Tory vultures are circling. But they will only feast when Johnson’s time is up | Isabel Hardman
After the Owen Paterson and Christmas party debacles, the Tories are seeing a pattern and have started to dread the ‘next one’

Isabel Hardman

12, Dec, 2021 @8:29 AM

Article image
After a year when the only certainty was Tory chaos, could 2023 be even worse? | Andrew Rawnsley
Britain has become trapped in a doom loop of perpetual crisis under the Conservatives

Andrew Rawnsley

18, Dec, 2022 @8:30 AM

Article image
The Observer view on the Conservative leadership campaign | Observer editorial
Boris Johnson’s successor, elected by Tory party members, will lack a mandate to govern the country

Observer editorial

17, Jul, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
The Observer view on why a general election in Britain is now essential | Observer editorial
The Conservatives want to foist another prime minister upon the country but they must not be allowed to do more harm

Observer editorial

23, Oct, 2022 @5:30 AM

Article image
The Observer view on Boris Johnson’s cabinet reshuffle | Observer editorial
Britain’s new government is not fit to face our existential challenges

Observer editorial

16, Feb, 2020 @7:00 AM

Article image
Boris Johnson can relax a little... but only because no rival is ready to grab power | Anne McElvoy
Tory MPs are uniting against the prime minister, but there are still too many dissatisfied factions for a serious leadership challenge

Anne McElvoy

19, Dec, 2021 @9:00 AM

Article image
If running really stimulates the brain, why hasn’t it rubbed off on our leaders? | Catherine Bennett
Judging by the past form of Truss, Johnson and Cameron, conspicuous jogging ought to be viewed as a red flag in a PM

Catherine Bennett

22, Oct, 2022 @5:00 PM

Article image
The Observer view on the Tory party leaving Britons to face the economic crisis alone | Observer editorial
As millions face hardship thanks to soaring bills, the Tories are focused on their next leader rather than the emergency at hand

Observer editorial

07, Aug, 2022 @5:00 AM

Article image
Wonder who Liz Truss will reward with a job or punish with exile? History can tell us | Tim Bale
If she becomes Tory leader she will have to weigh up whether voters are expecting a complete clear-out or more of the same

Tim Bale

21, Aug, 2022 @6:00 AM