Even when they left the revolver and bottle of whisky on the table, Boris Johnson couldn’t take the hint. For two days this week, Britain had no functioning government, as departments of state emptied of ministers who could no longer stomach his rule. But the prime minister clung on, convinced they were jealous of his genius.
Britain’s unwritten constitution and reliance on gentlemanly behaviour have barely survived contact with this pathological narcissist. But Johnson is not Donald Trump, and we can come back from the brink. Both country and party now need a clean break from a man whose grudging, bitter exit speech only amplified his unfitness for office.
While Johnson made his speech on the steps of Downing Street, I had a vivid memory of my former boss David Cameron doing the same. The morning after the Brexit referendum in 2016, I had the surreal experience of watching him resign from my office window, which was above the famous black door, while his face was beamed back on to my desktop by the world’s press camped out in the street below. Cameron became a caretaker leader because he retained the confidence of his cabinet, and of parliament. Johnson does not.
In the subsequent weeks, as we kept the engines running and waited for a successor to be anointed, the power seeped from Downing Street. The phones rang less often, the civil servants were courteous but distracted. Number 10, which feels like a Tardis of infinite possibility when a new leader arrives, shrank back to a rather small house whose carpets, I suddenly noticed, needed a clean. There was no better reminder that in a democracy, leaders serve the public, not themselves.
But Johnson does not understand this. His determination to stay on, in the hope of staging some grand finale in October, is an affront. “It’s like one of those horror movies when you think the baddy has been killed, but then he comes back out of the grave,” one former minister tells me. A cabinet which has just resigned en masse should not serve under the man they despise, who is unlikely to refrain from meddling. Either the deputy prime minister Dominic Raab, who is not contesting the leadership, or the respected Lord Hague, a former Conservative leader, should step up in the interim.
A swift succession is needed. But the Tories aren’t helping themselves. MPs who were unheard of before they posted pious resignation letters on Twitter are now proclaiming the virtues of humility, then throwing their hats into the ring.
It is time to put country before party. Yet some leadership candidates are vying to demonstrate their tax-cutting machismo to party members who may have the casting vote. Others will stand simply as an attempt to get into the next cabinet. This fails to reflect the gravity of the situation in which Britain finds itself, adrift in a world beset by high inflation, with sterling on the slide and our reputation for plain dealing wrecked by Johnson. The rise of Jeremy Corbyn showed the dangers of giving too much power to Labour party members; the Tories should return power to MPs to make the final decision, and shorten the period of uncertainty.
The country needs a serious prime minister who can set about restoring trust in politics, and in Britain. I can’t see how the next leader can be anyone who continued to serve in Johnson’s cabinet. All have been tarnished by shoring up his recklessness and disregard for process. I admire Nadhim Zahawi’s rise from Iraqi refugee to successful entrepreneur. But his decision to take over as chancellor on Monday — thereby propping up Johnson — followed by his call for the prime minister to resign 36 hours later on Treasury letterhead, was the kind of naked opportunism our politics can do without.
The next leader needs to be strong enough to appoint a cabinet on merit, not sycophancy. They will need to fill the gaping intellectual holes in Johnson’s prospectus. He talks endlessly about his “mandate” as a pretext for staying in power. He did have a mandate in 2019: it was to keep Corbyn out and overcome the Brexit stalemate, which he delivered by winning his majority. Now we need a coherent vision for economic growth and productivity, which Johnson lacks. We need a prospectus for the reform of public services, not Johnsonian pump-priming and pork-barrel. We need a government which focuses on these priorities and puts an end to the hyperactivity of focus groups, culture wars and headline-chasing.
The right prime minister must be capable of wooing, as Margaret Thatcher did in the 1980s, the investors and business people who will make or break our economy. They will be confident enough to end the ideological block to engaging with anyone who voted remain. And diplomatic enough to mend fences with our allies, not least over the Northern Ireland protocol, which has angered the White House.
The roster of candidates would fill this whole page. But Jeremy Hunt and Rishi Sunak both have the ability and experience to lead the country. Hunt has the additional benefit of having been outside the cabinet, offering a mature critique of Johnson throughout.
Johnson’s permanent revolution led nowhere. It must end, today, and be replaced with something he never understood — sober, serious government.