It has been less than a fortnight since Boris Johnson’s premiership exploded so spectacularly just three short years after his triumphant election victory, and he became the latest Tory PM to perish at the hands of his own party. Yet two weeks on, the people who brought him down are already wondering if they hit the right man and what, or who, on Earth will follow him.
This outbreak of assassins’ remorse is scarcely surprising given the parade of political pygmies and snake oil salespeople who have been demonstrating their dubious wares on our TV screens in recent days. The sad truth is that for all his manifold faults and flaws Boris Johnson is irreplaceable. None of his would-be heirs come remotely close to matching his charisma, his unquenchable optimism, and his can do, hands on attitude to solving the serious problems that confront us.
As Johnson’s 16th century fellow Etonian the Elizabethan courtier John Harington famously remarked: ‘Treason never prospers. What’s the reason? For if it prospers none dare call it treason’. As the Tory traitors who took down Boris struggle unconvincingly to simultaneously praise and distance themselves from the man they knifed, an appalled public looks on at their antics. They may well conclude that these Boris's betrayers are the last people to sort out the mess that they themselves have created.
As Boris Johnson himself leaves the stage – at least temporarily – whose limelight he has hogged so dramatically for the past decade, it is worth considering the qualities that propelled this unlikely figure to the forefront. Do those who took out Boris realise the damage they have done to the Tories’ reputation for competence and good governance?
Boris Johnson appealed to large chunks of the electorate not because of his transparent lack of honesty, integrity, and appetite for detail, but because he stood out from the crowd of grey men and women who populate politics as refreshingly, daringly different. Here was a guy who the average Joe could imagine sinking pints and having a laugh with. A bloke who had met the many self-inflicted setbacks and gaffes of his own life with that bounce back humour and resilience that people could identify with.
It is a myth that all previous prime ministers have been upstanding pillars of rectitude and seriousness. Many, such as Benjamin Disraeli, David Lloyd George, and Boris’s hero Winston Churchill, have been chancers in Boris’s own mould; colourful characters who have habitually lied – or in Churchill’s words told ‘terminological inexactidudes’ – in order to pursue their goals. For, as Churchill also observed, ‘truth is so precious that she always has to be attended by a bodyguard of lies.’
The foibles of their private lives did not prevent Disraeli from creating the modern Tory party, or stop Lloyd George and Churchill from founding the early welfare state and winning the two world wars. In the long perspective of history, posterity could remember Johnson more kindly for achieving Brexit, rolling out the Covid vaccination programme, and standing stalwartly behind Ukraine’s fight for freedom than for attending a few parties at the height of the pandemic.
In over-reacting to the jolly japester’s personal goofs and gaffes and under-valuing him getting the big calls right, Johnson’s Tory colleagues may have made the biggest error since their forebears overthrew the equally larger than life and controversial Margaret Thatcher with ultimately disastrous consequences. As the candidates vying to replace Johnson tear increasingly bloody lumps out of each other the only people to profit and prosper from their foolish act of treason will be Keir Starmer’s equally woeful Labour party.