Boris Johnson’s political career died while no one was watching
Boris Johnson’s time at the top of politics is surely over. I know I shouldn’t make predictions. I accept that critics have written Johnson off before, only for the audience to demand to see his tired old show one more time. But no one is cheering now. The political career of a man who did more to wreck the United Kingdom than any other Conservative leader is dead without hope of resurrection.
Death came suddenly, as it invariably does.
Until the spring, many Conservatives believed that Johnson’s return to the top of the party would save them from defeat. Writing in January, the Telegraph columnist Camilla Tominey said the Tories “desperately need a Boris comeback”. Despite being forced out of office by the mass resignation of ministers in the summer of 2022, despite being the first prime minister to be convicted of a criminal offence, he remained a “star,” she said. The northern working class – whose beliefs the Telegraph’s Camillas apparently know instinctively – yearned to be wowed by his “wow factor” again.
A few of Johnson’s opponents agree. Writing with the despair of a man who has seen his hopes ruined, the liberal-Conservative columnist Matthew Parris predicted a Johnson return in the Times only yesterday. The punishment ordered by a Commons inquiry into his lies about the lockdown parties in Downing Street may force him out of Parliament. But if it did, the Conservative party membership would find him a safe seat, and allow him to return as leader of the opposition after the next election. “I might have to emigrate,” Parris said. “But of this I’m certain: Johnson, along with many Tory activists, will be devastated if his story ends in any other way than with his triumphant return”
Parris failed to notice that something has snapped on the Right. The fantasy Johnson cultivated that he had a unique appeal to the British has had an overdue rendezvous with reality.
For evidence look to a rally led by “Team Boris” supporters in Bournemouth last weekend. It fell flat – not least because “Boris” could not be bothered to join his “team” and motivate his few remaining supporters.
After his fall from power in the summer of 2022, about 100 Conservative MPs were willing to back him in October’s contest to become Conservative leader. If Johnson had not pulled out, the Conservative party membership would have returned him as prime minister.
His support among MPs is fading too. At the end of March, a former cabinet minister told the Observer that, “The number of my colleagues who are prepared to put the interests of Boris above the interests of the Conservative party is now very small.”
John Osborne’s 1957 play The Entertainer captured the UK’s post-imperial decline through the character of Archie Rice, a failing music hall star. As we endure our post-Brexit decline, Boris Johnson could utter Rice’s bitter lines
“I'm dead behind these eyes. I'm dead, just like the whole inert, shoddy lot out there. It doesn't matter because I don't feel a thing, and neither do they.”
The spotlight has gone. The punters who once laughed with him have realised that he was laughing at them. Last week, Andy McSmith published Strange People I have Known, a memoir of his life a political journalist. McSmith recalls a scene from early in Johnson’s career when the then prime minister David Cameron called Conservative MPs together for a group photograph. Every MP attended apart from Johnson, who preferred to nurse his thwarted ambition in isolation –as he does now.
Seven years too late, the right realised that behind the Johnson façade there is only an echoing emptiness. What has brought this belated change?
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