Boris Johnson’s premiership hangs by a thread. He won’t resign, but for some time he has been a dead man walking, and after yesterday’s drama at Westminster his fate is no longer in his hands. The only way to get rid of him is for his parliamentary party to play the role of Brutus. Their reluctance has saved him thus far, but no longer.
It’s instructive to examine the bloody entrails of yesterday’s drama. Few beyond his own front door and those Tory backbenchers who standing at the bar suddenly felt a stray hand on their pork scratchings will have heard of him. His sordid misdemeanours were small beer compared to what Johnson has been doing for the past two and a half years. But as so often, it’s the seemingly small incidents which tip the balance.
The Tory ranks were outraged, then suddenly there was a resignation. Sajid Javid started it, and we saw the extraordinary spectacle of a cabinet minister at least claiming to be resigning on principle. But then of course Javid has previous, he knows how it’s done. Minutes later, Rishi Sunak followed suit. Both deny it was co-ordinated. But with only nine minutes between the two announcements, it’s impossible that Sunak’s letter was prompted by Javid’s: he must have had his all ready to go, but was pipped to the post.
The resignations begin, as does the panic
Picture the scene. Sunak and his army of advisers are closeted in his office, about to drop their bombshell, when they hear an explosion elsewhere. Javid has beaten them to it.
Sunak has been spending a lot of our money on polls and public relations to try and climb back to his popularity when he was doling out cash during the lockdown. He will be incandescent at having been beaten by nine minutes as poster boy for the revolution.
With two senior ministers down, the lower ranks looking over their shoulders at their majorities and reaching for the headed notepaper and the backbenchers in open revolt, suddenly Johnson is touring the tea rooms – always a sign of panic for a prime minister when he has to pretend he enjoys the company of his backbenchers. Johnson begins to realise he is no longer the story. The story is what and who follows him. He has already become yesterday’s man.
Several of this region’s MPs played roles in the ensuing chaos, directly or indirectly. After the two major resignations, Nadine Dorries was seen going into No.10, to general alarm. Dorries as chancellor? Fortunately not.
In the Lords, even the government minister had to try and keep a straight face in reading out Johnson’s statement on honesty and probity in public life. Around him, their lordships were convulsed in laughter. Among them was Baroness Evans, leader of the House of Lords and wife of James Wild, the Johnson loyalist and MP for North West Norfolk. It would be interesting to hear their conversation over the breakfast table.
Local MPs resigning at a clip
Little Will Quince, MP for Colchester, who not so long ago wrote adoringly to Johnson assuring him that the people of Colchester loved him, was one of those who now wrote his resignation letter. So did Bim Afolami, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden, another nobody but who has the reputation of doing the bidding of his political friends. His resignation was insignificant in itself, but of more interest given that he’s unlikely to have made the decision alone. Somebody told him to jump. Among those he is known to be close to are Grant Shapps (Welwyn Hatfield) and Matt Hancock (West Suffolk).
Most intriguing though is Liz Truss, who for months has enjoyed being the members’ favourite. But she has been slipping of late, for all her desperate if tone-deaf attempts to resemble Thatcher.
It’s said that Johnson was going to make Truss chancellor, but Nadhim Zahawi threatened to resign too if he didn’t get the job. So Johnson backed away from Truss and gave in.
Liz Truss and her team must have got drunk last night. As my colleague Mr Pecksniff has remarked, all those months following her around making sure her skirt hasn’t got caught in her knickers and they thought the crown was in their grasp. Instead, caught in indecision she has been passed over and is now being trampled in the rush of other contenders.
But that decision not to insist on making her chancellor betrays once more Johnson’s lack of judgement, because it has ensured he will no longer be the most important figure round the cabinet table. Zahawi made his demands and Johnson blinked. In doing so, he has not only probably trashed the hopes of Liz truss to replace him, he has effectively made Zahawi the main man. At the next cabinet meeting, all eyes will be not on Johnson but on the man sitting to his left.
Zahawi has shown ruthlessness, and the Tory party like ruthlessness. He will have slept well last night.
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