Former (and future?) Prime Minister Boris Johnson arrives at Gatwick Airport in London, after returning on a flight from the Caribbean on Saturday.
Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images
Britain’s ruling Conservative Party is on fire. The Prime Minister Liz Trussinstalled after Boris Johnson resigned in July, also resigned Thursday after a disastrous “mini-budget” with unfunded tax cuts scared the markets and its interior minister resigned. His fall occurred in the middle of a chaotic vote on fracking which saw Truss’ chief whip in tears, as Truss chased her through Parliament, begging her not to resign. Deputy Chief Whip apparently said, “I’m fucking mad, and I don’t care anymore.” A Conservative backbencher told the BBC: “I hope all those people who put Liz Truss in number 10 — I hope it was worth it. I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box, I hope it was worth it I’m sick of sitting around the cabinet table. I’m tired of people without talent who tick the right box not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their personal interest. Tory MPs apparently went to bed ‘crying’ – they have that in common with the country. polls up to 39 points ahead.
We now have another Conservative leadership election as Britain faces a cost of living crisis. Television reports swirl, with terrible cognitive dissonance, from battles between conservatives and people unable to feed their children. But fear not: Boris Johnson, the man who started it all party portal – his illegal Downing Street parties while the country was under COVID restrictions – and anoint Truss his successor, came back to save us. Or rather save us from himself by losing, but he doesn’t understand that. Like King Lear, who would divide a country if he couldn’t rule it, he only barely knew himself.
He was vacationing in the Dominican Republic when he learned that Truss had collapsed earlier than expected. He still has a job, as MP for Uxbridge constituency in London, and Parliament is sitting, so he should be at work, although to be fair he made $350,000 this month speaking to select Colorado insurers. But the niceties don’t really apply to him: who doesn’t need a vacation during a cost-of-living crisis? And like a king across the water, or a petty Batman, or a greater Napoleon, he flew to London, was photographed blurry in economy class — for optics, you understand — and reentered frontline politics as the temporarily reformed adulterer who is his most essential self. Johnson, at least, isn’t boring. Britain has long substituted its personal dramas for a functioning liberal democracy, because we have chosen to treat politics as entertainment, and it has brought us that.
Thousands of people followed his flight across the Atlantic. “I hope you enjoyed your holiday boss,” tweeted a Tory MP, “It is time to return. Few issues in the office that need to be resolved. Johnson was photographed on the phone to supporters — or no one, who can tell? – looking at, says a twitter wag, like a former cricketer selling car loans to pay child support. His father, Stanley, was an early supporter of his campaign. The Ukrainian government too. You better call Boris, they tweetedthen deleted.
The first 48 hours were a fake war: everything happened behind the scenes. Unwilling to repeat the two-month spectacle of the summer leadership election – the country has been repelled by the spectacle of the two finalists cheering on Conservative members to cut funding for deprived urban areas (Rishi Sunak) or wondering if France is an ally (Liz Truss) — there are new rules.
Candidates must have 100 votes by 2 p.m. Monday to be on the ballot. (There are 357 Tory MPs.) If a single candidate reaches 100, they will automatically win. Rishi Sunak – Chancellor Johnson, whose resignation ended his reign and was a runner-up last time out – and Penny Mordaunt, who finished third this summer, is standing. Johnson, hungry for the last drop of attention, has not, as I write, declared.
The last two will go to the vote of the 172,000 members of the Conservative Party who tend, with adamantine spite, to choose the worst candidate. They’re largely white, well-to-do, southern, and furious: They cheered when Truss said she was ready to use nukes. Conservative members are capable of anything. One of them rang a radio show to say that Sunak, who was born in the south of England to parents of Punjabi descent, couldn’t quite love England like the others.
Sunak is leading among parliamentarians as I write, with at least 146 named mentions MPs, including some former Johnson loyalists, and right-wing MPs from the party. The right likes Johnson because the right is the most resistant to reality, but it can back down. Sunak declared his candidacy Sunday morning after a failed summit with Johnson, who was, in the words of an insider, “like making pandas mate.” A Sunak coronation is possible if enough MPs can be convinced that a Johnson revival is foolish. Mordaunt, a former secretary of defense who passes for a centrist and can almost speak human, has 24 mentions. Mordaunt would have won last time out had Johnson not intervened on Truss’s behalf. Sunak can lend him enough votes to make it to the second round as he fears Johnson more. If that happens, she can win because conservative members are capable of anything.
Johnson, again, is the key, and that’s how he likes it: people watching him invoke victory from the ashes, to prove something to the ghosts that we can’t see. His supporters say he has election magic: he won an 80-seat majority in 2019 on a promise to “get Brexit done”, and they think he can repeat that. He has changed, they say, even as he is pictured returning from a two-week vacation when Parliament sits. They forget that he has only ever beaten extreme leftists at the polls, and never 39 points behind, and that narcissists cannot change. They are also unaware that Johnson is facing a parliamentary inquiry for misleading Parliament over Partygate, and he will have to govern while this continues. Conservative MPs can refuse to vote with him. If you thought his first government was dysfunctional, wait a bit.
Who will back him down? The momentum is with Sunak and, although Johnson’s supporters insist he has the 100 votes he needs to be on the ballot, only 57 are named so far. Does the rest even exist? But Sunak was the Establishment candidate last time out and he failed against Truss’s little castles in the air, the fantasy war with France (so retro), the tax cuts and whiteness. If Johnson reaches the bottom two, I fear he will come back. I cannot measure the madness of Conservative members from an office. Six years after the Brexit vote, the Tories tend to think magically: they have to, because the reality of what they have done is too horrific to contemplate, and Johnson is the high priest of their cult. The outcome will depend on the extent of their refusal and nothing more.
Whatever happens, the Conservative Party is in ruins and the next election is lost: 12 years later, facing the calamities of Brexit they gave themselves up, in the hock to a fantasy, they are factional, unleashed and adrift. A second Johnson term will only hasten their destruction. He will love it.