When the end came, how very Boris Johnson it all was. For it to have hinged on an unverified number that turned out to be false is just too perfect.
The former Prime Minister’s poor, deluded band of supporters had spent the weekend indulging in Johnson-style boosterism. He’s got the 100 nominations to stand for leader, you’ll see, several MPs tweeted and briefed on Saturday. No list was forthcoming. He didn’t have the 100 required to get on the ballot, he was stuck down in the mid-70s. On Sunday it was the same. He’s got the 100, you’ll see. “The boss,” as his most devoted fans call him, was back and ready to run. At the 8am meeting on Sunday he was said to be in great spirits and had even, what a statesman, tucked his shirt in. He’s got the 100, you’ll see.
This nonsense continued right up until the moment Johnson let his supporters down and issued a rambling statement saying he would not run. Of course, he still claimed to have secured the 100 required nominations – with no verification, no evidence – but he claimed to have decided for the good of the country to pull out, this time.
As is the way with Johnson, this left those loyal to him looking very silly indeed. Cabinet ministers foolish enough to say they were backing him were left stranded. Nadhim Zahawi published an op-ed on the Telegraph extolling Johnson 2.0, as the leader reborn who would restore national greatness. This implausible analysis went live two minutes before Johnson withdrew. Cue Zahawi reverse ferret. The piece disappeared with a “404 – Sorry page not found” message on the Telegraph site. Within half an hour Nadhim was tweeting his support for Rishi Sunak. Zahawi is the former Chancellor who claimed to have detected deep changes in the Johnson personality during the summer when Johnson was mainly on holiday rather than running the country.
Other Boris backers and MPs were furious. They had been given no clue by Johnson he would withdraw. Even on their evening team call there was no sign of surrender. After the sudden announcement, James Duddridge MP – “Dudders” as Johnson calls him with fake bonhomie in the manner of Biggles – said he was shocked and was off to bed. “I’m coming back, I’m going to do it, Dudders,” is how Boris launched his campaign on Friday. Dudders had backed a dud.
This collapse is great news for Britain on two levels. It means Johnson won’t be returning as Prime Minister this week. This calamitous prospect would have introduced a “buffoon premium” on the financial markets, spooking investors and suggesting Britain had gone completely mad. Johnson never had any interest in economics, or any understanding of this vital subject either.
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At a time when investors need reassurance, during a war in an energy crisis, Johnson in Number 10 would have heralded more chaos. Could Jeremy Hunt, on a vital national mission, have stayed as Chancellor? Doubtful. Hunt was backing Sunak he confirmed last night. The return of Johnson, dogged by an investigation into whether he misled parliament, would most likely have produced an administration that collapsed quickly into a general election for which none of the parties are ready. That contest may well come next year. For now the priority must be to get the country through the energy crisis and markets panic, when there may soon be explosions in other exposed markets outside Britain.
But this wild episode – 72 hours of appalling irresponsibility by Johnson supporters – suggests Johnson is not just finished this year. He is done for good. Having let down his friends in the most Boris way possible, only the most cognitively challenged would trust him again. Yes, in the next few days there will be some crazy desperado types promising, a few MPs, not to back a Sunak-led government on anything. I wonder if a few will have to have the whip withdrawn. Several by-elections could be in prospect, a price worth paying for the Tories if it speeds the return to reality-based politics.
Sunak showed statesmanship, albeit with a side order of necessary hypocrisy, in paying tribute to Johnson on Sunday evening. This was understandable, an attempt by the winning campaign to emphasise unity at a time of national emergency. But Johnson doesn’t deserve praise. His behaviour since Truss resigned is the final proof of what has been apparent for ages. The dash back from his holiday when parliament wasn’t on holiday. The failure to realise he did enough damage last time he was Prime Minister of this country. The letting down of his loyalists. The man is an absolute scoundrel.
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