Johnson is going – but he won’t leave until he’s dragged everyone down with him

Had Boris Johnson’s dramatic disgrace occurred in a normal world, it would have pushed the expectation of a general election back a bit, perhaps to the last possible moment in 2024. The prime minister has finally agreed to resign – ludicrously, he wants to stay in post until the autumn, as ex-ministers beg him to leave (it’s possible he only said this because humiliating climbdowns are perversely his happy place). Any new Conservative leader would want to put some blue water between themselves and Johnson and carve out a space in the nation’s psyche. Hell, if they were really old-school, they’d want to put together a political programme of their own ideas, hammered into household use through sheer repetition.

That previously modest road map is a fantasy. There is no possible blue water between anyone and Johnson, who won’t sink until everyone’s lapels are splashed in his carnage. It’s hard to imagine the Tory leader with any personalities or philosophies left to try on and harder still to think of the party united enough that it could devise a long-range strategy.

Arguably, all this turmoil makes a snap election more likely; unarguably, whenever this dishevelled event falls, it will have the feel of a general election they just decided to call five minutes ago. It will be fought on slogans that are tailored to answer the other side’s buzzphrases rather than speak to voters.

Chaos with Ed Miliband” has ascended to the level of punchline, the grim, ironic mic drop whenever anything so turbulent happens that the Today programme is forced to remain on air after 9am. David Cameron’s attack on Labour was that progressive parties were predisposed towards mismanagement. Couple that with the instability of even an informal pact with the SNP, and some ineffable quality they found in Ed (looking back, it was most likely his chaotic habit of sometimes thinking before he spoke), and you had a recipe for disaster.

It would be really hard to make disorder stick as a charge against Labour now. Failing “to fix the roof while the sun shines” was unfair: “this country’s on the brink of becoming Greece” was unfair and a bit irresponsible. There is quite a high tolerance for completely unjustified accusations at election time. Yet no Conservative will want to conjure the promise of order during the next campaign. Even their own voters know that politics doesn’t have to be like this. To describe out loud the ideal of calm and constructive government fosters this sense of bottomless and crucifying what-ifs.

More likely, and already essayed in the rightwing tabloids, is a rerun of 2019, with a twist: not “Labour wants to stop Brexit”; rather “they want to take your Brexit away”. Keir Starmer sought to pre-empt this in his speech on Monday night about how there was no going back, not into the EU, not into the single market, not into the customs union. Labour is now the party of hard Brexit, since the Tory proponents for leaving the EU are simply too busy falling apart to make a case one way or the other. The Conservatives, even the worst of them, are so much more agile than Labour that it would be no surprise at all to see them throw up their hands and select a JeremyHunt-like figure as leader, becoming a Rejoin party on the hoof.

Sloganeering might not be as easy as it looks for Labour; the target is almost too wide, and they too have their formulations, phrases and lores that they think are surefire because they unaccountably still heed the wisdom of Peter Mandelson. They talk about “Tory sleaze” and it recalls the absolutely trivial, even romantic scandals of the John Major era; “Tory corruption”, and it’s a brown envelope with a couple of thousand quid in it.

It is simply not possible to describe how bad this experiment in clowning has been using any normal playbook. The world as it is has turned to farce, yet when Labour is called upon to describe the world as it should be, they still get the cocked-head, deeply sceptical, “How are you going to pay for that, then?”, treatment, as if they’re trying to wrest the reins from sensible fiscal conservatives. If I were Labour’s version of Lynton Crosby, I’d be counselling everyone to go full tonto, as Martin Amis used to say, to scream: “How dare you ask me that, can’t you see what’s all around you, everywhere?”

This is the truly impossible point of the story arc. We’re heading towards an election whose slogans will be less fair than 2010’s, more preposterous than 2015’s, more infantile than 2019’s. But the only thing worse than this coming election would be no election. So please God, make it soon.

  • Zoe Williams is a Guardian columnist

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