There is only one question in British politics right now. How long can Boris Johnson survive as prime minister following the resignations of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid yesterday? Only recently, Johnson was publicly speculating that he sees himself staying in Downing Street for another decade. Today we can more realistically measure his time not in years but weeks, days – and even hours.
In conventional political terms, the case for Johnson to go is more overwhelming than ever. His prime ministership is irretrievably tarnished by scandal, the Chris Pincher debacle merely the latest of them. Most of his signature policies have not lived up to their billing. The “humility, grip and new direction” for which Javid called in his resignation letter are non-starters. He is at odds with much of his party over basic issues of style and strategy. He has lost his chancellor. And he is a vote loser. Last night in a snap poll, 69% of voters – and a majority of Conservative supporters – said Johnson should quit.
Ordinarily, all this would result in one of two things happening to ensure his ousting, and perhaps both. A cabinet revolt would be one, in which a critical mass of ministers tell the prime minister his time is up, as happened when Margaret Thatcher was ruthlessly forced out in 1990. The other would be a revolt of the parliamentary party of the kind that eventually did for Theresa May three summers ago.
Both of these possibilities have now gone off at half-cock. The cabinet refused to move against Johnson in June when it should have done, and the departures of Sunak and Javid have not yet been followed by significant other senior ministers. Johnson will feel his policy of choosing his cabinet for its fidelity not its ability has been vindicated. The revolt of MPs in the confidence vote last month, meanwhile, was botched by being both badly timed and unsuccessful.
This does not mean that Johnson is in the clear and will get away with it. The mood among Tory MPs, especially after the byelection losses two weeks ago, is still mutinous. It is certain to be far worse now, following last night’s resignations. Westminster will be in turmoil today, and it will not take much for fresh momentum to build against Johnson’s attempt to continue with business as usual. The resignations this morning of Will Quince, hung out to dry by Johnson on Monday over Pincher, and Laura Trott are unlikely to be the last. In those circumstances, both the cabinet and the backbenches may try again.
Never, though, underestimate Johnson’s sheer lust for staying in power. Remember – who can forget it? – that Johnson does not think the normal rules apply to him. His capacity for shrugging off and ignoring what anyone else in his position would see as terminal threats is boundless. He is the only British prime minister whom one could imagine trying to stay in power, Trump-like, after losing a general election. The loss of a couple of ministers will not have dented his narcissism one bit.
That Johnson instinctively answers only to his own rules does not mean that in the end the people’s rules will not apply. But unless his unquenchable reflex to stay in power by whatever means are to hand is understood, nothing about Johnson’s character and politics makes any sense. He has never been any different. He never will be any different. It is what he will do today and what he will go on doing for as long as he can stay in Downing Street.
His former lieutenant turned would-be assassin, Dominic Cummings, retailed a devastating Johnson remark this week which, if true, sums the whole thing up. Suggesting that he should appoint himself as his own Downing Street chief of staff and spokesman in November 2020, Johnson reportedly told Cummings: “Yes I’ll fuck up all sorts, but so what? If I can’t do what I want, what’s the point of being prime minister?”
This sense of limitless entitlement is what unifies all the successes, failures and the sheer chaos of Johnson’s career. It unites the lies, the laziness, the grandstanding, the theatricality and the destructive banality of so much of what he does. But it also means he is hard to write off and that even if he is dragged kicking and screaming from Downing Street later today, Johnson will remain an unruly and disruptive presence in British politics long after he has had the seals of office prised from his hands.
Amid the tensions of a moment like this, it is of course understandable to concentrate on the raw personal dramas of Johnson’s attempt to cling on and the schemes of others to seize the crown from him. Nevertheless, two other longer term questions lurk in the wings of Johnson’s battle for survival.
The first is whether and in what form the Conservative party itself will survive Johnson’s period in power. Johnson’s Conservatism is highly unusual, a rag-bag of high spending, government intervention and English nationalism. It has little connection with the low tax, small state, globally liberal Toryism that preceded it and which the party cast aside when it rushed to embrace Johnson as the answer to its problems. If and when Johnson goes, his form of Toryism may go too. But what will come next?
Both Sunak and Javid provide clues in their resignation letters. Sunak writes about “a low tax, high growth economy, and world class public services” and says that to achieve it requires sacrifices and difficult decisions. This is a code for spending cuts and choices that Johnson, concerned more with popularity, seems unwilling to endorse. As Sunak himself wrote: “our approaches are fundamentally too different.”
Javid’s letter was at once more personally critical of Johnson and more delphic. But it ends: “The country needs a strong and principled Conservative party, and the party is bigger than one individual.” Once again, this is code for restoration of the kind of Conservatism that the party abandoned in 2019, the low tax economy that remains second nature to much of the party.
It looks highly probable that Johnson’s successor, whoever it is, will talk in these terms too. Their aim will be to rekindle a form of low tax, low regulation Conservatism that most of those who grew up in the Thatcher era, or in its shadow, see as the route to prosperity and government. It will be as though the pandemic, the cost of living squeeze, climate crisis and the war in Europe can be forgotten along with Johnson himself.
This is why there is a second and even larger question lurking behind the visceral drama of Johnson’s attempt to stay in power. That question is whether such an approach to political economy is what the Britain of the 2020s actually needs. The Tory party’s dilemma is the country’s dilemma too. There is far more at stake in our politics right now than the future of one disreputable man’s incontinent ego.