When Boris Johnson sat down to draft his resignation statement after learning the privileges committee had concluded that he lied to MPs over Partygate, he was determined to leave his enemies – on both sides of the Commons – a clear message.
“It is very sad to be leaving parliament,” he wrote. “At least for now …” That he still harbours hopes of a comeback – despite the damage that he has done to his own reputation, the Conservative party brand and to the country more widely – should surprise nobody.
Since he announced in July 2022 that he was quitting as prime minister, Johnson has made no secret of the fact that he felt he had done nothing wrong and so had been treated unfairly. “I am bewildered and appalled that I can be forced out,” he said.
Yet despite much speculation about the outcome of the privileges committee inquiry, few expected Johnson to go so quickly.
It is likely that he did so – taking Westminster by surprise on a day on which his resignation honours list had already dominated the news – so that he could walk on his own terms, rather than face being forced out by MPs or, even worse, his own constituents.
Friends say that Johnson, despite all his confidence and bravado in public, wanted one thing above all else – the warm embrace of popularity. Already a divisive figure after Brexit, his actions since Partygate have slowly eroded the support that he maintained.
Last month, the polling expert Prof John Curtice said that if it wasn’t for Partygate, Johnson would probably still be prime minister, and predicted it could still bring his career as an ordinary MP to an end.
Johnson continues to have his admirers among the ranks of Tory voters, with a Savanta poll in May showing that 64% of those still think favourably of the former prime minister, and just 19% against.
But the man who in 2019 persuaded thousands of former Labour voters to back the Conservatives for the first time, winning a huge 80-seat majority, now has little appeal outside the ranks of the Tory faithful.
The same Savanta poll found that fewer than one in five Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters were willing to give Johnson any credit, and just 5% said they would be happy to see him return to No 10.
Trust – or lack of it – was key. Poll after poll showed that voters did not believe the former prime minister’s account of social gatherings at Downing Street during the Covid pandemic. His claims that the privileges committee had failed to produce a shred of evidence fell on closed ears to those listening to his account.
Many Tory MPs felt that the committee would conclude that Johnson had “recklessly” misled the Commons. But some allies had taken hope from the committee’s decision not to consider his recent referrals to police for further alleged lockdown breaches, ignoring the fact they were not in its original remit.
Those who know Johnson best suggest that he has such a warped relationship with the truth that he genuinely believes he is being honest in the moment, even when he is not.
He reflected this in his resignation letter: “When I spoke in the Commons I was saying what I believed sincerely to be true.” But that was not an excuse the privileges committee was able to accept.
Rishi Sunak will, presumably, be breathing a sigh of relief that Johnson is now one step further away from any sort of future comeback. Every time the prime minister has tried to move his party on from the Johnson era, he has been dragged down by yet more drama.
But there is no sign that his predecessor is planning to go quietly, and every indication that he will continue lobbing political hand grenades from the sidelines, even as he tours the globe making millions from speaking engagements.
Johnson has already taken parting shots at Sunak, telling him the party needs “urgently to recapture its sense of momentum”, make the most of Brexit, cut business and personal taxes, push for a free trade deal with the US and in essence “not be afraid to be a properly Conservative government”.
The former prime minister has long relished comparisons to his historical and political hero, Winston Churchill, who was returned to office in 1951 despite losing the 1945 election, and went on to serve as prime minister for another four years.
But despite his reputation for staging gravity-defying political comebacks, Tory MPs and others from across Westminster really do believe that it is over for Boris Johnson this time.
Title: Boris Johnson’s hopes for a comeback must surely now be futile
Source: the Guardian
Date: June 10, 2023 at 06:51AM