Compared to those who had Boris Johnson dead and buried almost before his premiership began I have been quite circumspect in my speculation about his fate. Rightly so, as it turns out. As I write, Boris is still clinging to the high office that fitted him no better than his suits and looks like continuing to do so. I cannot claim to have foreseen the mass resignations which means Cabinet meetings can now be held around a card table. I don’t think anybody did. And not even my recognition of Johnson’s capacity for survival would have had him still standing after so many blows such as would have felled anyone else. Consider the relative ease with which Margaret Thatcher was removed in tears from No 10. And she was made of iron whereas Johnson is composed of stuff you may prefer I didn’t mention so soon after breakfast.
The same knee-jerk simplism which gave us daily premature obituaries maintains that Johnson is refusing to step down because he’s formed a relationship with power more deep and lasting than any of his relationships with women. Or ‘friends’, for that matter. First Michael Gove and now Priti Patel have found him as easy to abandon as he did many others. It may well be that Boris is drunk on power as well as more traditional substances. I daresay it’s very difficult to let go of those reins. It must be at least as intense and traumatic an experience as being told you’re redundant after many years of faithful employment. But I think there is another factor at play which may help to explain Boris Johnson’s obdurate tenacity – fear!
Of course, anybody who has been labelled redundant knows that fear is a major ingredient in the mix of emotions that this provokes. Fear is the main driving force in all our lives. But I suspect Johnson has known little of the fear born of insecurity and uncertainty about the future. He is a member of that privileged class which is to a varying degree cushioned from the travails which afflict lesser lives. This will be a new experience for him. And one he is unlikely to enjoy.
Johnson has an extra reason to be afraid which may not have affected many of his predecessors. Most ex-British Prime Ministers land on their feet when they fall from grace. With the obvious exception of Spencer Perceval – who was assassinated – it doesn’t seem to matter whether they leave office in glory or in shame, they can usually anticipate what most of us would regard as a cushy retirement. Even those who leave under all but the very darkest of clouds can expect, soon or late, rehabilitation and some form of sinecure. These days, it tends to be a very rapid turnaround. Whereas in the ‘old days’ it might have been two years or more of wilderness-wandering before a disgraced ex-Prime Minister could hope to be reincarnated as an elder statesman and sage advisor to successors. Now, it seems that barely a fortnight passes before that junior minister in the Foreign Office found to have Vladimir Putin on speed-dial is back in favour. I’m not sure Boris Johnson is looking towards that kind of future.
Normally, what would happen is that after an appropriate number of days or weeks had passed, somewhere in the British press would appear a ‘reassessment’ of Boris’s time in office under a headline asking whether he was really as bad as he’s made out to be. That would start the ball rolling and next thing you know the ‘reassessments’ would make way for hagiographies, statues are being erected and the subject finds themselves clad, not in the prison garb which might be more fitting, but in the ermine robes of the House of Lords or perhaps the raiment of a university bigwig or at least the business suit of the head of some foundation or think-tank. My suspicion is that Boris Johnson is not hoping for such a future.
The thing about leaving high office is that it allows anybody with a prurient or malign interest to go rummaging through what was formerly your drawers looking for nasties of one kind or another that can be unleashed in the name of public interest or justice or titillation or just because they can. I reckon Boris has more skeletons in his closets than are to be found in the average catacomb. And precious few friends and allies to help keep those closet doors closed. To paraphrase The Clash, if he stays there will be trouble and if he goes it will be double.
Can he keep the tide of retribution at bay by holding on to the power that allows him to do so? You certainly wouldn’t think so if you were going by the newspaper headlines. But those headlines have been wrong on an almost daily basis for the last three years. So circumspection may still be the wise course. Boris Johnson is deeply amoral. He is also now desperate. That’s a dangerous combination when accompanied by great power such as has accrued to the British executive over recent decades in a steadily accelerating process which renders the British Prime Minister all but invulnerable.
I probably should check the rolling news before writing this final bit. But I’ll take a chance and say that Boris is still standing. He’s not done yet. And he’s not without an armoury. If the multiple resignations are the swings that have hit him full in the face then the roundabouts are the vacancies these leave to be filled. Patronage can be a powerful weapon in the hands of those who know how to wield it. Johnson wouldn’t be where he is were he not adept at using the power of patronage. He still has the ability to call a snap election with all that this implies. An election battle transforms the political environment, making reluctant allies of those who had been sworn foes. Between the carrot of ministerial posts and the stick of an election that might cost the Conservative Party dearly, Johnson may yet find a way to stay in office.
Let us never forget that the things that make us despise Boris Johnson make him a heroic figure in the eyes of others. He still has great appeal to the far right of the party. And who can doubt that this is a man willing to ruthlessly and recklessly exploit the vein of fervent British Nationalism which he and his (for the most part) former chums mined with such great success in the EU referendum campaign?
Boris Johnson may survive even the mess he’s in now. Which would be bad enough. But what should really worry us is the fact that we can talk quite realistically of any British Prime Minister being able to survive these circumstances. That speaks of a power which should scare everyone with a preference for democracy.
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