An elderly shires Tory enthused last month: “Boris is the man for the hour! He has delivered Brexit, vaccinations, and now arms for Ukraine. He gets things done!” Having myself only voted Conservative once since 1992, in 2010, I found it tough to embrace this proposition.
Yet it is useful to be reminded how many Tory foot soldiers still root for Johnson, even passionately so. Instead of the morally debased figure that many of us recognise, they see simply a prime minister whom they still believe can keep out Labour, the only outcome about which they care a toot.
Moreover, they can cause people such as me, long-term residents of the soggy centre, significant embarrassment by demanding whether we sincerely, honestly believe that Keir Starmer or Ed Davey is more fit than Johnson to govern Britain.
The damp persuasion cast our votes for Labour or the Liberal Democrats at last week’s local elections to protest against the shocking inadequacy of those in charge. Yet Tory friends are on to a good thing when they urge that it is not enough merely to lay into the present government. We must declare whom we wish instead.
Conservatives spotlight the poverty of thinking on the left, conspicuous even among its media columnists. Starmer has earned some modest revival of respect by promising to resign if fined over Beergate. Yet this weak vessel remains in danger of being remembered by posterity as the man who refused to define a woman comprehensibly, and has yet to produce a memorable new policy.
Meanwhile the Lib Dems’ Davey is an acceptable backbench MP, but cannot fill big boots. Once again, if we centrists strive for honesty, we should admit doubt that either man would have made a better fist of managing the pandemic or of making policy towards Ukraine than has the current prime minister.
Our dilemmas get worse when we contemplate the prospects for Johnson being replaced by another Conservative. Rishi Sunak remains the most impressive alternative, but it seems unlikely that he can overcome the deserved embarrassment over his wife’s tax status, overlaid upon his party’s residual racial prejudice. A northern Tory said to me recently: “Given a choice of two leadership candidates, our local constituency members will never vote for a person of colour.” This is shameful, but his judgment may be correct.
The winner of a leadership contest could well be either Ben Wallace or Liz Truss. Both have diminished themselves almost to vanishing point by their wild rhetoric on Ukraine. They talk of its war aims like football supporters baying from the away stands, rather than as respectively our defence and foreign secretaries.
Wallace’s remarks this week, likening Vladimir Putin to Adolf Hitler, reminds us of the unfailing truth that only the most contemptible politicians compare themselves to Churchill, or their enemies to the Nazis. The defence secretary, by his choice of language, debased the discourse to Putin’s own level. Britain is doing the right things by Ukraine, but we should never forget that it is not our people who are fighting and dying.
Moreover say what we like about Johnson, he is not a stupid man. Neither Wallace nor Truss seems likely to offer more competent governance, nor to embark upon an adult dialogue with the rest of the world such as Britain has lacked for years, especially with Europe and about Ireland.
Jeremy Hunt is by far the best qualified alternative leader, which is why Johnson has never admitted the former health secretary to his cabinet of grotesques. Hunt lacks stardust, but would govern sensibly and tell as much of the truth as any politician can. In less febrile times, these should represent decisive claims on the top job. Unfortunately, however, a Conservative party in bondage to its own right wing is unlikely to defer to Hunt’s virtues.
And so, back to Johnson. Thanks to Starmer’s equivocations about his own foolish beer during lockdown, the prime minister may survive even publication of the Sue Gray report on the Downing Street party culture – a much more serious issue than anything allegedly done by the opposition, because the principal instruments of the government repeatedly broke the law that they themselves made.
In the eyes of Conservatives, there is still a pragmatic case for retaining Johnson. Yet if the future of Britain and public faith in our politicians are to count for anything, the alternative principled case for removing him must be recognised as imperative.
Should he remain prime minister until the general election, a message would go forth to the world and, more importantly, to his prospective successors: that it is no longer cause for disgrace and resignation to have been exposed as a serial liar both in the House of Commons and out of it; that the bar for any man or woman who seeks to govern Britain has been lowered to a moral level that even the basest candidate could surmount.
I have suggested that those of Johnson’s Conservative rivals who seem most likely to succeed him are less intelligent people than himself, and no more possessed of new ideas for Britain. Yet if he retains his office, what prospect is there of our country regaining the respect in the eyes of the world that it has assuredly lost, and which cannot be regained merely by a repugnant Tory scramble over the corpses and rubble of Ukraine?
In the harsh economic times ahead, Johnson’s inability even to simulate compassion will intensify the government’s unpopularity. An essential quality for any man or woman who aspires to lead Britain through the worst cost of living crisis in modern times will be that they should be seen to be a caring human being. Our body politic must be given an opportunity to do better, however great the uncertainty about what would follow change in Downing Street.
For the Tories to flinch from removing Johnson is to invite their devastation at the next general election. Starmer may not be impressive, but by 2024 popular rage against the Tory government could well trump all. For the millions who mill in the middle ground, searching for hope, this can only be discovered in change. The only moral answer to the question “Who else is there?” is: “Anyone but Johnson.”
Max Hastings is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard