How Boris Johnson Caused the Death of his Own Government
The Prime Minister’s complete lack of shame ultimately led his Government to destruction, reports Adam Bienkov
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There is a very rare congenital condition in which sufferers are unable to feel any pain. The condition, which some may expect to be liberating, is in reality a curse. Those afflicted by it become progressively injured and often fail to make it to adulthood as their physical actions become ever more reckless.
A similar condition ultimate befell Boris Johnson’s Government. The Prime Minister’s greatest strength – his ability to withstand apparently limitless amounts of political pain – ultimately became his biggest weakness.
After months of increasingly damaging scandals and self-inflicted crises, the Johnson project could sustain itself no longer.
His congenital dishonesty and disloyalty, which helped him bring down both David Cameron and Theresa May, was ultimately the cause of his own downfall too. After bringing down two former Prime Ministers, he eventually brought down himself as well.
At times it felt like nothing would remove him. Over the past 48 hours, the Prime Minister lost the support of the overwhelming majority of his own MPs and most senior ministers. Dozens of members of the Government either resigned or were sacked, with the resignations continuing even after he announced his own departure.
Yet for two days he refused to budge, even when the Chair of the 1922 Committee, which represents Conservative backbenchers, and the Chief Whip, who manages party discipline, told him that his premiership was over.
As a result, the basic functioning of the Government has come to a halt. Key parliamentary business was cancelled this morning, with ministers publicly turning down requests to replace those who had left the Government.
Over recent months, the bounds of trust between the Prime Minister, his ministers and the public were broken down one-by-one.
Ministers no longer believed the Prime Minister and the press no longer believed his spokespeople. The system of ‘lobby briefings’ – which before Johnson proceeded under the assumption that Downing Street may sometimes bend the truth to journalists, but would never outright lie – have now all but broken. In recent days, the sessions were dominated by questions to Johnson’s representatives about their own lies and whether they would also resign.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s own party fell into outright despair. In the House of Commons on Wednesday, almost all Conservative MPs remained deathly silent as Johnson insisted he would remain in power no matter what.
One MP, Gary Sambrook, revealed to the Chamber that the Prime Minister had sought to blame his colleagues for failing to prevent Chris Pincher from getting drunk and sexually assaulting others. Another asked Johnson, in despair, if there were any circumstances under which he would step down. Later, Conservative MPs could be seen weeping in the corridors as the destruction Johnson was bringing on their party became clear.
Such a situation was clearly not sustainable. In his resignation statement this morning, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who had until then been fiercely loyal to Johnson, said the Government was now “past the point of no return”.
“A decent and responsible Government relies on honesty, integrity and mutual respect,” he told Johnson. “It is a matter of profound personal regret that I must leave Government as I no longer believe those values are being upheld.”
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The crisis could only ever end one way.
Had Johnson have clung on then his party would have changed their rules to allow another confidence vote in the Prime Minister at the start of next week. If he had failed to stand down then he would have suffered a truly humiliating defeat – with only a small rump of his own party still backing him to remain in Downing Street.
On Wednesday, Johnson threatened to bypass this process by calling a snap general election instead. Such a move would have turned the crisis within the corridors of the Palace of Westminster into a full blown constitutional one instead.
Officials had advised the Prime Minister that the Queen would likely veto any such move, due to the so-called ‘Lascelles Principles’. These state that she should block an election if the current Parliament is viable, there are potential alternative leaders available and a general election would damage the economy.
Even if he had somehow been able to succeed in calling that election, he would have likely delivered his party its worst defeat since it was last ejected from office in 1997.
Yet, such is the Trumpian delusion gripping the Prime Minister, that this idea was still being actively considered in Downing Street yesterday.
This morning’s newspapers suggested he would “stare down” his enemies. In what must be one of the most sinister front pages ever to have been published, the Sun newspaper splashed on a warning from Johnson to his party that “you’ll have to dip your hands in blood to get rid of me”.
In the end it turned out to be an empty threat. After years of believing in his own spin about being a “teflon” Prime Minister, Johnson ultimately fell victim to the same laws of gravity that were exerted on all of his predecessors. Without the support of his Cabinet, his MPs, and even increasingly his supporters in the press, there was only one way this was all going to end.
Boris Johnson’s apparent immunity to political pain was in some ways his greatest strength. It allowed him to survive multiple scandals, over more than a decade, which would have finished off almost any other politician.
Yet it ultimately became his greatest weakness. By pushing onwards, when every pain receptor in his body should have been screaming at him to step back, Johnson brought his own Government to an untimely, and ultimately painful, end.