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A swift fall from grace for PM who can’t escape his flaws

Andrew Grice


Only nine months ago party conference celebrated resounding general election win

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Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak with Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak with Prime Minister Boris Johnson

PA

Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak with Prime Minister Boris Johnson

If Boris Johnson’s downfall is triggered by the resignations of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, it will be a remarkably swift one.

It is easy to forget that only nine months ago, Johnson was riding high.

The Tory conference in Manchester was a delayed (by Covid-19) celebration of his greatest triumph — the thumping majority of 80 he won at the 2019 general election.

The first act of Johnson’s fall from grace came when he foolishly tried to save the skin of fellow Brexiteer Owen Paterson after he broke Commons rules on lobbying.

Although a revolt by Tory MPs forced Johnson to back down, this was the first in a series of self-inflicted disasters which exposed fatal weaknesses in Johnson’s character (that were always there) — a tendency to think the rules do not really apply to him, and a determination to defend members of his loyal tribe even when they transgress.

These traits would return with a vengeance during Johnson’s shambolic handling of the scandal engulfing Chris Pincher, who he made his deputy chief whip in February despite knowing about previous complaints about his behaviour — a reward for Pincher’s role in saving Johnson when the Partygate row blew up in January this year.

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(The traits were also apparent when Johnson declined to sack his closest aide Dominic Cummings for his trip to Durham during lockdown).

The Pincher and Partygate controversies highlighted another Johnson character flaw: the former journalist liked to dismiss any media storm as something that would soon blow over.

This led him to dissemble rather than find out the facts during any crisis before rushing out a statement that, at best, was economical with the truth.

So there were “no parties” at Downing Street during lockdown and the rules were observed at all times, he told the Commons.

Allies fear that statements Johnson made during two sessions of prime minister’s questions last December will form the danger points in the privileges committee’s investigation into whether the PM “knowingly misled parliament” — a resigning matter if he is found guilty.

Not that Johnson would necessarily obey this rule either — one reason why his Tory backbench critics are determined to force another vote of confidence in him before the committee’s inquiry concludes this autumn.

Even his critics acknowledge Johnson’s strengths.

The former Mayor of London has never been a conventional politician; his appearances on Have I Got News for You showed he could appeal to parts of the electorate the Tories had long since been unable to reach.

Few politicians are known by their first names.

The Leave campaign would not have won the 2016 Brexit referendum without him, as Nigel Farage acknowledged.

No other Tory leader would have scooped up traditional Labour seats in the north and Midlands.

Yet his undoubted campaigning and communications skills were no qualification for the hard grind of government, which requires an attention to detail and a laser-like focus to ensure delivery that have never been Johnson’s strong suit.

Perhaps Michael Gove saw this coming in 2016 when he spectacularly ended Johnson’s first Tory leadership bid by quitting as his campaign manager and running himself.

Gove said memorably: “Boris cannot provide the leadership or build the team for the task ahead.” Remarkably, Cummings considered a plan to remove Johnson only weeks after the 2019 election — another recognition that his boss was unsuited to government.

Those doubts would grow as, despite rhetoric about levelling up, his government failed to find a mission, or resolve the Tory Party’s split between tax-cutters and big spenders like Johnson himself.

His party knew what it was getting when they chose Johnson.

It knew he had been sacked by The Times for making up a quote, and later from the Tory frontbench by Michael Howard for lying about an affair.

As one Tory MP put it: “We knew we were making a pact with the devil, but we thought he could run a government. He can’t.”

After the Paterson, Partygate and Pincher affairs, the character traits that were once widely seen as strengths — as someone who would ignore convention and bulldoze the establishment to “get Brexit done” for the people — turned into weaknesses.

Whenever he departs, Johnson’s political epitaph will probably be that he believed in “one rule for us, and another for everyone else.”


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