Boris Johnson and the longest goodbye

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Boris Johnson is the convict who refuses to die. For seven months, barely without a week’s hiatus, he navigated his way through a series of scandals and blunders that would have toppled most of the titans of post-war British politics. To the intense irritation of his enemies and rivals, he refused to accept the political death sentence.

By teatime on Tuesday, the near-simultaneous resignation of Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Sajid Javid, however, finally looked like the end for the UK’s mercurial Prime Minister. A slew of junior ministers followed in their wake. At breakneck speed, the No.10 cobbled together untested replacements. The sound of scraping barrels echoed around Westminster.

This time, his post as prime minister seems mortally wounded. The duration of the disappearance will determine the possible outcome of the next British election and the future of his party.

Sunak and Johnson were supposed to issue a joint statement on the economy next week. But the chancellor was frustrated with the air of continuing crisis hanging over the government and the making of contradictory policies: his resignation letter said he was ready to compromise and accept collective responsibility for the decisions with which he disagreed, but his differences with the Prime Minister were now too great to continue in office. In other words, the Prime Minister wants to buy off voters exasperated by tax hikes and inflation while the Chancellor has nightmares about the growing deficit. Sunak’s fiscal orthodoxy could no longer be reconciled with Johnson’s free-spending ways.

Another blow came from Javid, the Health Secretary, who told Johnson in his farewell missive that “you have lost my trust too” and boldly questioned the Prime Minister’s integrity. Javid has already resigned from this government, after serving as a short-lived chancellor. This time, he said “the public is ready to hear the truth.” In this case, he hinted, they didn’t hear it from Number 10.

Yet Johnson’s political assassination was as slow and inept as that of Rasputin: disgruntled aristocrats tried arsenic, revolver bullets and drowned in the frozen Neva River before finally dispatching ‘the mad monk which was the Tsar’s favourite. Johnson, too, manages to keep his head above water.

Police and civil service inquiries into the Partygate scandal at No 10 stumbled and failed to finish off the Prime Minister earlier this year, even though he was fined for having breaks its own lockdown rules. Even a recent parliamentary revolt failed to overthrow him, although no less than 148 Tory MPs said they had no confidence in his leadership. If the rebels had waited for the results of two catastrophic partial election defeats for the government a fortnight later, Johnson would most likely have been grilled.

Remembering the cabinet revolt that heralded the downfall of Margaret Thatcher – Britain’s toughest and most successful Prime Minister – Tory dissidents recently pleaded with senior ministers publicly and privately to send Johnson packing. The cabinet has the ultimate responsibility to give time to a leader who cannot lead. But the old adage that “he who wields the knife never wears the crown” – and the knowledge that many light loyalists around Johnson are unlikely to see high office under another Tory Prime Minister – ensured that the ranks remained unbroken. So far.

Even so, it will be remembered among the rank and file that both outgoing ministers have US green cards in their pockets, allowing them to reside and work in the United States. Sunak, a highly employable former Goldman Sachs executive with high-profile global business contacts, recklessly suggested in his resignation letter that the Treasury could be his final cabinet post.

This challenge may have been led by well-heeled plutocrats, but how much can Johnson’s MPs, party and country bear with the cover-up? The latest dirty sex scandal involving a whip, Chris Pincher, whose job it was to exercise party discipline and personally promoted by the Prime Minister, humiliated cabinet colleagues who were supposed to defend the Prime Minister’s lies.

Johnson sent minister after minister to support No 10’s denial that he knew about Pincher’s predatory sexual conduct before giving him the job. On Sunday, a cabinet ally protested: “I am not aware that he was made aware of any specific demands.” On Monday, according to another minister, Johnson was unaware of “any serious specific allegations”. Yet it was soon revealed that Johnson once joked “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” about his disgraced ally.

It seems terrible to voters that even friends of the Prime Minister are now writing his political obituaries. I was at a gathering of people sympathetic to Johnson last night and was struck by how many remembered his ability from his Oxford days to acquire large numbers of loyalists and fellow travelers while being supported by a small tight core of intimates. This talent has sustained him through many storms.

Now opportunist loyalists are disappearing or writing “Dear Boris” letters of resignation. The result is a scuffed cabinet and a prime minister hooked by the fingertips. Neither a good look for the government nor a smart bet for Britain’s Tories.

More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:

Summer of British discontent hits Tories: Martin Ivens

Boris Johnson is in trouble. But the UK economy is doing well for now: Marcus Ashworth

Tories would be foolish to dismiss Labor threat: Adrian Wooldridge

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Martin Ivens is the editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Previously, he was editor of the Sunday Times of London and its main political commentator.

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