After more than 50 resignations from Boris Johnson’s government last week (and by some accounts a call from the palace), he finally conceded that it was time for him to go. Or did he?
Anyone expecting contrition and humility from his speech at the Downing Street lectern on Thursday were treated not to a 10-minute mea culpa, but rather the notion that it was everyone’s culpa except his own.
Those who were trying to depose him possessed the stupidity of herds, he told us, and their actions in moving against such an electoral colossus with a giant personal mandate were batted away as “eccentric”.
Anyone expecting a Pickfords van to turn up to take away the Johnsons’ £3,600-plus drinks trolley and assorted other trinkets bought by someone else was met with an announcement about the appointment of a new cabinet.
Anyone searching for the R-word – resignation – in his speech came away empty-handed. Those putting the fizz on ice to celebrate the departure of Britain’s worst prime minister soon heard he was planning to spend this weekend around the pool at Chequers and even hold a lavish wedding party there later in July (although that was hastily moved elsewhere when details leaked).
It became clear that Johnson may be stepping down as party leader but he was emphatically staying on as prime minister – with all the attendant perks – for at least another three months. Thoughts of a caretaker prime minister were stamped on.
So maybe the resignation wasn’t a resignation at all. Maybe Johnson was still refusing to recognise that his hold on power is over, to admit that he has messed up the job he wanted all his life in spectacular style. The self-pity, the lack of reflection was striking but characteristic. For who in their right mind would not have stepped down long ago, given the length and gravity of the charge sheet against him?
But Johnson does not do normal and – judging by his incoherent performance at the liaison committee last week and sightings of his uncontrolled temper – may not be entirely in his right mind.
Maybe Johnson is simply retreating into his bunker, surrounded by fanatics like some last redoubt at the end of the second world war. He even invited such comparisons by likening himself to the Japanese officer Hiroo Onoda, who refused to surrender and did not emerge from a Philippine jungle for 29 years.
Luck has always shone on Johnson before, rescuing him from dozens of scrapes and follies that would have felled others in an instant. Why not play for time in the expectation that something (an inconclusive leadership contest, an escalation of war, etc) would fix it again so that he could cling on to the power only he deserves?
And indeed, the fightback started almost immediately with a Daily Mail splash headline suggesting Conservatives had “lost their marbles” in an outbreak of “hysteria” apparently orchestrated by an unexpected pairing of Brussels and Moscow. Below a posed picture of Johnson embracing wife Carrie and son Wilf, the paper’s front page asked in giant letters “What the hell have they done?” while branding his opponents as “minnows” and predicting they would all “rue the day”. No wonder former prime minister John Major saw fit to call for Johnson to leave office immediately.
Perhaps the truth is too unpalatable for Johnson to confront. For it is not only that he has been found wanting on truth and integrity, which were never important to him, but competence too, which is.
Back at Oxford, he was obsessed that failure at some of his less glamorous duties as president of the Oxford Union would brand him an “incompetent”, and he ordered his supporters to “hush” it up. Last week, one of his own ministers accused him of being incapable of running “a piss-up in a brewery”, and time and again those who deal with the government in recent months have complained that it does not govern. They are not prepared to hush it up.
Despite Johnson’s considerable gifts – the erudition, the campaigning, the charm – he has descended into shame and disgrace. A man who has found success in life so easy is now hiding away from the reality that he is, after just three years as prime minister, a failure.
Sonia Purnell is the author of Just Boris
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