During the early years of his childhood, Boris Johnson wanted to be World King. I expect that monarch does nothing as tiresome as governing – that’s to say, ruling rather than reigning.
Instead, he surely rises instead to the occasion when plague threatens the land, addresses his grateful subjects in dog Latin and ancient Persian, writes scintillating newspaper columns, unveils golden statues of himself and bridges to nowhere, bonks various grand duchesses and scullery maids, cracks excellent jokes, stands strongly with Britain’s allies in Eastern Europe, and is supported by suitably servile staff in a permanent state of self-celebration.
A World King doesn’t have to bother with being first among equals in a Cabinet, or pleasing 350 subordinates who ultimately have the power to sack him. (Think being Mayor of London, and scale it up a bit.)
The only conclusion I can draw from the present behaviour of the adult Johnson, some 50 or so years on, is that he is retreating into the imaginary world that will have consoled him during childhood, and from which he draws the poetry, wit, courage, imagination and sense of destiny that has taken him to Number Ten.
For in so far as one can now get sense from Downing Street about anything, his plan seems to be to stay put, go over the head of his Party and of Parliament if necessary, gain a general election, win by a landslide, and return to Number Ten for business as usual.
Now it has to be said that the Prime Minister has a point. After all, he was returned less than three years ago with a thumping majority of 80 or so. He has suffered no Suez, ERM, or Iraq-style major policy defeat. It is far from obvious that a Conservative leadership election will produce a more convincing successor.
Above all, the country cannot be governed properly if its government has ministerial vacancies because Tory MPs are unwilling to fill them. As I write, O-level and A-level results loom, but other than the Secretary of State there are no Ministers in the Education Department to be held accountable for whatever they throw up.
There is no Housing Minister. I appreciate that slimming down government would be no bad thing, but the unavailability of decent housing to a mass of young people is important, don’t you think? As for Johnson’s project of Levelling Up, the department in charge of it currently has no Ministers at all.
Chuck in the uncertainty of whether or not he would stay on as Prime Minister in the event of a leadership election, and you can begin to see why there was a good case for supporting him during last month’s confidence ballot. So much so that for better or worse ConservativeHome didn’t then call for Tory MPs to vote him out.
But last month is a vanished world. The simple fact is that with two fifths of those MPs having opposed him, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid gone, backbenchers trolling him in the Commons with open contempt and some 40 Ministerial vacancies, Johnson is losing the confidence of the Conservative Parliamentary Party. And has probably already lost it. So why is he still there?
The answer is terrifying simple: because his will to power is more raw, more primal than the remaining members of his Cabinet, the current 1922 Committee Executive, and most Tory MPs. “This Executive mustn’t act because a new one is due to be elected,” says Graham Brady and his colleagues, in effect “Over to the Cabinet.”
“The Cabinet can’t act because we must keep the Government going,” say most of its members. “It’s over to the ’22.” I understand the scruples which haunted its executive yesterday. And why Cabinet Ministers feel that they have a duty to their Party and the country to carry on, or try to.
But the fact is that the longer the present chaos rages, the worse for the Conservative Party and, more importantly, for Britain. Does Nadhim Zahawi grasp the contradictions inherent in accepting a new job from the Prime Minister, urging him to go…and then pledging to carry on working with him?
Do his colleagues in the same position understand what Johnson is up to – when they ask him if he wouldn’t mind awfully resigning in a few months, and he stonewalls in response? Can Cabinet members not see that he is exploiting their weakness as he has done those of others – while all the while sizing up their necks and sharpening the executioner’s axe?
For where Michael Gove went yesterday, they will duly follow – if the Prime Minister thinks it necessary for his survival and believes he can get away with it. Only Oliver Dowden, Sajid Javid, Rishi Sunak, Simon Hart and now Brandon Lewis have called his bluff. Suella Braverman thinks that she can declare herself a leadership contender without the botheration of resigning.
Penny Mordaunt is still in place. So is Liz Truss. It is far too early to decide who should be the Next Tory Leader. But Prime Ministerial aspirants who haven’t followed Javid and Sunak have a black mark on their file. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Party activists conclude that they want something completely different.
For all his will to power, Johnson’s premiership is draining away. Perhaps the turbulence in his life during the past few years – divorce, Covid, marriage, two children – has left him isolated with few surviving friends: self-justifying, bewildered by events, isolated and, like some of his predecessors, just a touch paranoid. Or so some of his old muckers claim
Whether so or not, the Downfall parodies are already being rolled out, as the Prime Minister seeks MPs to fill the vacancies – the equivalent of moving imaginary troops to imaginary positions. As for the World King seeking to gain that general election, I suspect that he would find the Queen not at home.
Fond of him as I am in a melancholy way, I can’t help wondering whether she should simply sack him today, and spare the country the inevitable: other Cabinet members eventually concluding, in the words of Javid yesterday, that enough is enough; or the new ’22 Executive deciding next week to change the leadership challenge rules, with Johnson despatched like Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. For Operation Save Big Dog, read Operation Save Mad Dog?
For even the Prime Minister’s urge for power, that irresistable force, cannot smash the immovable object – his colleagues’ loss of faith in him, as he rages against the dying of the light.
Talking of not quite seeing things straight, how I’ve laughed at maniacal old Michael Heseltine, with his insistence that the end of Johnson would mean the end of Brexit. He is wrong, of course – even Starmer is coming to terms with it (as Durham Police near an announcement). Nonetheless, I’m starting to wonder if Heseltine is on to something.
Johnson and Gove have consumed each other. Dominic Cummings rages for revenge. The moment of Vote Leave has gone. Britain may be out of the EU, but it’s business as usual. Will the last Minister to leave the Cabinet please turn off the lights?