Boris Johnson on zip-line in Victoria Park, 2012. Photo credit: Barcroft Media / Barcroft Media via Getty Images
Artillery Row

It is time to bury Boris

Every day of Johnson as PM is another day in which the Tory party sinks deeper into crisis

I come to bury Johnson not to praise him. Of course, there is plenty to praise. But for him, the Brexit vote would probably have been lost. And then he took over the leadership of the Conservative party at a moment of national crisis, when the Labour Party refused to give any practical support to Brexit, and when the House of Commons, given unparalleled powers by an irresponsible Speaker, had proved itself recklessly incapable of agreeing on a solution. He got Brexit done, and in doing so transformed British politics, winning over traditional Labour voters and achieving an 80 seat majority.

But this is not the time to praise Johnson; now is the time to bury him. When he first ran for leader of the Tory party Gove abandoned him for good reason, because he immediately proved himself to be casual, careless, and totally unreliable. After the second time he had the sense to bring in Cummings, and as long as Cummings was in Downing Street there was some hope that real change would come. As a first step, the civil service needs to be reformed from top to bottom — the withdrawal from Afghanistan has finally punctured any illusions on that score. Our Rolls-Royce diplomatic service looks good idling at the kerb, but it turns out to have the horsepower of a Hillman Imp. Getting rid of Cummings, replacing him with callow paper-shufflers with no experience and no principles, was a recipe for a disaster that has not been long in coming.

Every day of delay is another during which the Tory party is inexorably retoxified

The Downing Street parties, beginning with the November 13 2020 party to celebrate Cummings’ departure, point to a circle of friends and a political machine with no grip on the fundamental principle that you can no longer keep secrets because every one carries a camera and a voice recorder in their pocket. You have to assume that everything will leak. Lying, which has always been Johnson’s specialty, is a failing strategy unless you can build a completely delusional tribal culture, as Trump has done in the USA. Bad as Johnson is, he is no Trump, and British voters would not have voted for him if he were a Trump.

Here we are, then, governed by a man with no principles and (worse) no strategy — a wonky shopping trolley, as Cummings says, incapable of steering straight. I’m writing on Monday, and there are now 77 Tory backbenchers who have declared their intention of not supporting the government tomorrow — 77 out of 226, or more than one third. This is not just a vote on COVID restrictions; it is also a vote of confidence in Johnson, who will survive, but only because he will have the Labour party voting with him, intent on trying to keep him in office until the next election.

This is the time to axe Johnson. Every day of delay means another day of getting nothing done, another day during which the Tory party is inexorably retoxified. So how do we go about replacing him? I have my doubts about Sunak. Winchester College, Oxford, Stanford, Goldman Sachs. Married to a billionaire. What’s to like? Cummings is said to favour him, but Cummings isn’t coming back. Truss is at least comprehensive school educated, and worked for Shell and Cable & Wireless. She has, moreover, the great advantage of recognising biological sex, which would be an inestimable advantage come the next election. Let’s see how she stands up to a campaign.

Together, it seems, they decided they had the skills required to run the country

Crucially, this is no time for a coronation. As soon as the Omicron wave has broken over us (and I remain optimistic that vaccinations and booster shots will make that a short-term problem) we need a proper campaign, and one thing we know is that the frontrunners rarely survive a proper campaign.

For the last forty years Margaret Thatcher has dominated British politics. Blair was Thatcher’s disciple; Cameron was Blair’s. So great has been her influence that we no longer know what either of the two major parties stand for. Is the Labour Party Corbynite or Blairite? Is the Tory party serious about levelling up, or is it a party of small town Rotary Clubs? First Thatcher, then Blair, then Johnson shattered the armature of class politics. The electoral triumph of Johnson, Cummings, and Levido promised a new post-Thatcherite politics. But then came COVID. Johnson fell dangerously ill; worse he married someone with political views. Together, it seems, they decided they had the skills required to run the country. Just how ridiculous this was has been made apparent by the rehearsals, and the resignation, of Allegra Stratton.

When Cummings went, Johnson was told he needed a human shield, a warrior to defend him. “It’s ok,” he apparently said, “I’ve now got Allegra.” Handpicked by Boris and Carrie, Allegra turned out to be useless. Asked a difficult question in a rehearsal, she didn’t have the wit to bat it back with “I’ll make enquiries and get back to you.” Having decided to resign, she appeared before the press in a Christmas jumper, hair uncombed, weeping. So worthless as a human shield that she couldn’t even stand tall and defend herself.

But what will the new politics look like? Is the big divide now between those — schools, the health service, the police, etc. etc. — funded by tax payers and those who work in the non-state world? If so, does the Tory party have any strategy for shrinking the vast state apparatus, in opposition to a Labour party which will seize every opportunity to expand it? Does it mean to seriously engage in the culture wars? In asking and answering such questions the Tory Party has the strategic advantage; it needs to seize it, and that requires a proper campaign at the of which the party will know where it stands.

A proper campaign means, I think, that Johnson must be replaced by a caretaker PM. Raab has proved his unfitness by staying on holiday during a crisis. Sunak and Truss are candidates. Javid would do, if he is willing to do it. If not, there is always Theresa May.

There will come a time to praise Johnson. First, let’s bury him. The Tory party needs to bury him fast and bury him deep. Time to start digging.

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