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Status anxiety

Why did Boris quit? I suspect he doesn’t want to be leader right now

Quitting doesn’t have to be a sign of weakness... just ask Nigel Farage

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

9 July 2016

9:00 AM

Brits don’t quit,’ said David Cameron two weeks ago, to which the obvious rejoinder is: ‘Oh but they do!’ The list of quitters since the referendum seems to grow every day, the latest being Nigel -Farage. Everyone made the same joke when they heard he had resigned — ‘How long for?’ — but when I bumped into Suzanne Evans earlier this week she told me he was still in charge. ‘I think he was giving notice of his intention to resign, but hasn’t put a date on it,’ she said. She was paying close attention, given that she became the interim leader the last time Nigel quit and lasted precisely three days.

I hope it’s permanent this time, if only to disprove Enoch Powell’s famous maxim. To go out on such a high, having achieved the summit of your ambitions, is quite something. What other party leader in the modern era has departed at their moment of greatest triumph? It can’t be done in a normal democratic contest because to pull off a comparable feat you’d have to resign straight after leading your party to victory, which would be a bit odd. It’s only possible after winning a referendum.

The general view on quitting is that it’s a bit pathetic, but few would dispute Farage has made the right decision and a case can be made for the Prime Minister, too. -Leavers and Remainers are split on this. Some Leavers, like me, believe Cameron could have stayed on and, had he done so, minimised the panic caused by the result. It will all be all right, of course, but a sense of continuity after such a dramatic moment in Britain’s -history would have been a welcome -palliative.

Nonsense, say the Remainers, who insist he had to fall on his sword after losing a contest he’d staked his reputation on. They acknowledge it’s contributed to the chaos we -currently find ourselves in, but claim it was absolutely inevitable, just like every other negative consequence of -voting to leave, all of which they -foresaw with Nostradamus-like -clarity. -(Pro-ject Fear has become Project Told You So.)

What about Boris? He’s been the most widely criticised of the three big quitters. ‘He is like a general who marches his army to the sound of the guns and the moment he sees the battleground he abandons it,’ said Michael Heseltine. A tad unfair, given that it overlooks the actions of his chief adjutant, but then Heseltine is the Ayatollah Khomeini of the Republic of Remainia.

Could Bojo have fought on after the Gover had entered the race? -Possibly, but I suspect he doesn’t want to be leader at this particular moment. The ball has come loose from the scrum, but if he’d picked it up and ran with it he would have found himself in the same position as the ostrich in Bedknobs and Brooksticks, suddenly facing an oncoming horde of rhinos, crocodiles and -warthogs. Safe to say, Boris hasn’t given up on his dream.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that quitting isn’t necessarily a sign of weakness. You have to assess the likelihood of achieving your objective and weigh the benefits of hanging in there against the costs of withdrawing. Among those costs is being labelled a ‘quitter’, but it’s a hallmark of maturity if you don’t attach too much significance to that. I know this from bitter experience.

In 2005, Lloyd Evans and I wrote a sex farce set at The Spectator in which Boris was the central -character. Called Who’s the Daddy?, it was a big success, enjoying a sold-out run at the King’s Head in Islington and being named Best New Comedy at the -Theatregoers’ Choice Awards. Several producers offered to take it into the West End, but Boris begged us not to and he’d been such a good sport about the whole thing — not sacking us, for instance — that we -decided to do the decent thing. In any case, we thought, we’ll just write another.

Our second play was called A Right Royal Farce and in spite of the success of our first, we couldn’t find anyone willing to produce it. The -reason for this was -obvious, in -retrospect: it was terrible. But I refused to give up. Through sheer, bloody-minded persistence, I -managed to get it on and, not surprisingly, it was an unqualified disaster. The Evening Standard’s drama critic described it as the worst play to grace the London stage since the Blitz. Like Nigel Farage, I should have quit while I was ahead.

Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.

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