Boris sings one last sad song before he mounts his pyre


And so there we finally were. After only 36 hours of a statesmanlike tantrum, Boris Johnson had decided to depart the stage. Some of us had hoped that he would hold out longer, requiring the 1922 Committee executive to drag him naked from Number 10 while he tried to cling onto the doorway, Nadine Dorries on Sir Graham Brady’s back, screaming and attempting to claw his eyes out.

One almighty final vanity shoot

There had been casualties along the way. There always are with Johnson. Michelle Donelan is already on her way to being a tough pub quiz question, accepting a job and then resigning from it in less than two days. Nadhim Zahawi somehow, amazingly, found an even more humiliating path. Twenty four hours after he’d defended Johnson across the airwaves, he conceded that the prime minister’s critics were right, but explained that he, personally, would not be resigning over it. Apparently his leadership campaign, months in the making, is being advised by Sir Lynton Crosby’s allies. We can shortly expect to be briefed that Sir Lynton himself wasn’t involved.

Word came through that the prime minister was appointing a new Cabinet. In Portcullis House, Matt Hancock checked his phone. Still no call. Johnson might be in a hole, but he wasn’t that desperate.

We crowded into Downing Street. It was packed with foreign journalists who had come to enjoy the spectacle. Official photographers kept walking out of Number 10, where the prime minister had presumably been enjoying one almighty final vanity shoot.

He had owed his public two final days of lunacy.

The loyal aides assembled at one end of the street, with Carrie Johnson, baby in sling. All the big characters were there: Guto Harri was typing on his phone. If there isn’t a memoir hitting the shelves before Christmas then he’s missed a trick; Jacob Rees-Mogg, the constitutional expert, who is likely to now go silent on his view that a change of prime minister requites an immediate general election. And Dorries, of course. With such advisers, the prime minister did well to last as long as he did.

At the other end of the street were Johnson’s remaining MP supporters. All you need to know about them is that despite their desperate loyalty, they’re still somehow not in the Cabinet.

At 12.30 pm on the dot, the prime minister emerged. There were cheers and applause from his two fan clubs and boos from the crowd beyond the gates.

“It is clearly now the will of the Parliamentary Conservative Party,” he began. Already the qualifying clauses were there: the clear implication was that the real Tory Party out there in the country still wanted him. This was a coup.

He addressed himself to “the millions of people who voted for us in 2019, many of them voting Conservative for the first time”. These people, he was clearly saying, were his people. “Thank you for that incredible mandate.” He listed the statistics of that big win, that comfortable majority with which he had done so little.

He had, he said “fought so hard in the last few days” to stay on because he felt it was “my job, my duty, my obligation”. He had owed his public two final days of lunacy.

It was a petulant, needy, self-centred statement

He moved to his greatest hits. Brexit! Pandemic! Ukraine! Levelling up! Perhaps there are small wrinkles in some of these areas that remain unironed, but in general, he could assure us that they were all triumphs. He explained his passion for equality of opportunity. “Genius and talent and enthusiasm and imagination are evenly distributed throughout the population, but opportunity is not,” he said, as though this were a profound insight. To be fair, he had done his part: several members of his Cabinet weren’t at Eton.

And then we were on to whinging. It was “eccentric” to remove him “when we’re delivering so much”. He had a “vast mandate” and was doing pretty well in the polls. He was the victim of “pretty relentless sledging”, a comment that was simply weird from a man who has enjoyed the kind of press support that only peerages can buy. It was “painful”, he said, not to be able “see through so many ideas and projects”, presumably a reference to the Chequers treehouse.

Could he be more self-pitying? He could. “At Westminster, the herd instinct is powerful, and when the herd moves, it moves.” He was the victim of his bovine MPs, cowards who didn’t have the courage to see that you just have to stick to your lies until everyone else gives up.

“In politics, no one is remotely indispensable,” he went on, with transparent insincerity. “Our brilliant and Darwinian system will produce another leader,” he said, the sarcasm so thick you could have spread it on a biscuit.

He paused, and gave his arse a long, dignified, statesmanlike scratch. Andrea Jenkyns, one of the loyal MPs, wiped away a tear. We will not see his like again. “To that new leader I say I will give you as much support as I can.” It was the very definition of a limited promise.

He was sad, he said, to be leaving. “But them’s the breaks.” I think that’s from King Lear.

By now the noise of music and jeering from Whitehall was rendering him almost inaudible. He was thanking people, including his protection officers — “the one group, by the way, who never leak” — a weird comment that is best interpreted as an admission that he’s been attending regular orgies for the last three years without a word of it appearing in the papers.

He addressed the nation again. “Even if things seem dark now, our future together is golden.” He seemed to imagine that viewers at home were sobbing into their sofas at the loss of the greatest leader their nation has known.

That was it. There was no acknowledgement that he was personally, entirely, more than any of his predecessors, the author of his own downfall. There was no apology, not even an acknowledgement that he had let people down, made terrible decisions, lied, and sent people out to lie on his behalf. Quite the reverse. He was, as ever, the victim of it all. It was a petulant, needy, self-centred statement, one that could only have been more in keeping with his conduct in office if it had included an appeal for cash to help with redecorating expenses.

Beyond the Downing Street gates, Whitehall had become a street party. For people who weren’t comfortable with the Jubilee, this was a moment to celebrate Britain.

Leaving, some of the MPs were fearful that they might be attacked, but, as one of them assured another, “no one knows who we are”. Jenkyns was having none of this craven cowardice. She began shouting at the crowds, determined to defend her lost champion. He would have the last laugh, she told them. I’ll take that bet.

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