When this nightmare is over – and it is over for Boris Johnson, but not yet for the rest of us – the Conservative party owes this country a grovelling apology.
It should hang its head in shame for foisting upon us a man so wholly unfit for office that he had to be dragged from it kicking and screaming and threatening to burn everything to the ground. It should apologise for choosing a leader it knew to be a lightweight and a liar, and propping him up for three years at our expense long after its worst fears had been realised. But most of all, it should apologise for repeatedly underestimating what he was capable of when cornered and how hard he would be to remove. Nor should it expect, having apologised, to be forgiven.
When Johnson finally threw in the towel this morning, you could almost hear the country sigh with relief. It’s goodbye to the worst prime minister any of us has ever known and, frankly, good riddance. He has brought this country to its knees, and his only legacy will be the long painful years of clearing up the damage. But we are not quite out of the woods yet. The prime minister’s unhinged insistence on clinging to power long after that was tenable have brought us terrifyingly close to the brink over the last few days.
In his final hours, he was clearly positioning himself to go full Trump, arguing that he was the people’s choice and only they could fire him. Thankfully, he has been persuaded to resign before he could attempt to mobilise the most deranged and paranoid strand of rightwing populism, ever-ready to believe that their Brexit is being somehow stolen from them. Nonetheless, there was something chilling about watching the liaison committee’s chair Sir Bernard Jenkin, a staunch Brexiter and former Johnson supporter, try but fail to extract a promise from a fading prime minister not to try to elude a no-confidence vote by calling a snap election. It is those who understand Johnson best who most fear the damage he could do on his way out of the door.
The deal that finally prised his fingers from the window ledge is that he must resign, but will remain prime minister until this autumn while a successor is chosen, with one final swansong at the party conference in October. That simply cannot hold.
Convention dictates that a prime minister who loses a vote of no confidence continues running the country in the national interest, while keeping out of the contest for the successor. Doing so requires sensitivity, tact, and sufficient selflessness to put other people’s needs above your own. Who imagines Johnson capable of any of that for a second? He’d rather leave scorched earth behind him, take as many of his enemies as possible down with him. That much was clear when he sacked Michael Gove, at a point where 40-odd ministers had already resigned, avenging a personal betrayal from two leadership contests ago. He won’t be able to bear the idea that someone else could succeed where he failed, nor to resist meddling in the succession.
Even on a practical level, it’s hard to see how this works. More than 50 ministers have resigned, some with stinging criticisms of him, which they’d have to meekly swallow in order to return and make the government function. Downing Street is in the middle of an urgent standoff with the EU over the Northern Ireland protocol, which would be next to impossible to resolve while it effectively has no leader, but even harder with an interim whose own party has said so publicly that he is a liar and not to be trusted. His authority is even less likely to be accepted in Scotland and Wales than in England, threatening a fresh crisis for the union. Within minutes of his resignation, Tory MPs were arguing that Johnson shouldn’t be allowed to stay and that a caretaker leader such as his deputy, Dominic Raab, should step in, and they are right. It has always been the case with Johnson that those who know him best, trust him least.
What else? First, the Conservative party needs to organise the swiftest succession possible, limiting the time a wounded leader is on the loose, which might mean coalescing very quickly around a successor rather than going through endless hustings while a vacuum emerges at the heart of power.
Second, Whitehall, parliament, the devolved governments and the main parties must urgently agree a Plan B that does not rely on a fallen leader doing the decent thing. British institutions cannot keep making the mistake of expecting Johnson to respond as a normal politician would, and then being taken by surprise when that doesn’t happen. Third, a general election is now long overdue. And fourt, Brexiter Tories must keep stressing that ditching Johnson is not a factional issue but something uniting leavers and remainers, “red wall” and shire. Leadership candidates must not at any cost leave an opening to whip up the kind of toxic and dangerous emotions we saw at the height of the Brexit votes under Theresa May, ending in the routine and thuggish harassment of remain-voting politicians on the street. The Conservative party created a monster. It should not underestimate, even now, how hard it may be to stop.