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Why Boris clung on

The Prime Minister knows his legacy is on the line

Artillery Row

As Boris Johnson resigns I can’t help wondering why he stayed so long. Why is he still squatting in 10 Downing Street, as if he can stay there in splendid isolation until the Conservatives have named his successor. Is he trying to cram the expensive furniture into Carrie’s bags?

Boris faced more resignations in a matter of hours than most of us have had haircuts in our entire lives. It looked like even the cleaning staff would quit. Or the cat.

Aside from the immovable Nadine Dorries, it was hard to think of any allies that remained. Boris’s vicious streak came out last night when he sacked Michael Gove.

Where does he have to go?

The Prime Minister must have known that he had little chance of his position being protected by positive news. The Ukrainian War, which had kept his national and international popularity alive, had swung in Putin’s favour. Economic news remained alarmingly grim and will become more so, in all probability, when the winter bites.

It was impossible to imagine that he was having fun. This unusually jocular PM was faced with crises on all sides — and what must feel like a relentless parade of grim expressions. The mood in 10 Downing Street must have had all the joie de vivre of a funeral on a wet Monday morning.

So, what was he doing there? Well, look at him now. Where does he have to go? As much as 10 Downing Street must have felt cramped and claustrophobic, the outside world must look like a wilderness.

The PM has lost a lot of friends in the halls of power. Always a loose cannon, he now seems like an old and rusted one as well. (One also suspects — ungentlemanly as it is to speculate — that familial troubles might intensify in different, less prestigious digs.)

Tony Blair had a smooth transition from power but Blair was a man of the world — more comfortable when shaking hands in Davos than when feigning smiles in SW1. Boris likes his foreign jaunts as well, as his Ukrainian adventures have illustrated, but that has less to do with cosmopolitan ambitions than his quasi-Churchillian sense of what it means to be a great British statesman. As for John Majoresque obscurity — unthinkable. Can you imagine BoJo sitting through a game of cricket?

Being PM was Boris’s ultimate goal. Jobs (and wives) came and went but through it all he stumbled irreversibly upwards. It was not just being PM that drove him. It was being a great PM. It was being the sort of statesman that history bathes in the glow of approval.

His reputational fate is sealed

As he leaves now, his reputational fate is sealed. Historians will remember him as a failure. As unfortunate as he was to be elected just as COVID-19 was coughed across the world, he turned a giant majority into a series of humiliating scandals and precious few achievements. His half-hearted efforts at housing reform flopped. He taxed young people deeper into anti-Tory bitterness. He mumbled about the perils of woke nonsense without doing anything to starve the Blob. He was not even funny.

Churchill might have had Gallipoli but then he was the mere First Lord of the Admiralty. He could become PM and overwhelm that failure with achievements. What can Boris do? Become Secretary-General of the UN? Cure cancer? More probably, he will be spat out of the bottom of the after-dinner speaking circuit. What a fall from grace.

Yet at the risk of enabling the cynicism of a man who has never been short of it, the prospects for his post-PM existence are not all bleak. As I said, attrition in Ukraine is liable to grow more grim, and energy shortages in the colder months could make this summer look positively charming. Boris’s successor has a hard road ahead of them, and his years in power could look less bleak with time. People will stop caring about “Partygate” (if they have not already). They will forget who Christopher Pincher even was.

Boris can relax into a more congenial life, where he can have a drink without it being a source of controversy. He can write his books and articles and make a lot more money than he has been able to do as PM.

Does Boris deserve a content retirement? No. His record is undeniably one of failure. But history is an inconsistent moralist and a cosy retirement is still on the cards as he jumps off the sinking ship of his Government.

I hear Have I Got News For You is still looking for guest hosts. Does the world really have enough books about Churchill? God knows we never have enough opinion columnists.

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