Boris Johnson strikes again
BORIS JOHNSON did not go quietly. He never does. The former prime minister resigned from Parliament on the evening of June 9th, after reading a report into whether he knowingly lied to his fellow MPs about the extent of illegal parties on his watch during lockdown. Rather than leave with dignity, Mr Johnson went on the offensive, accusing enemies of an establishment stitch-up. There is a witch hunt underway, to take revenge for Brexit and ultimately to reverse the 2016 referendum result, wrote Mr Johnson. The investigation had hung over the former prime minister for months. The still unpublished contents of the report, which were shared with Mr Johnson last week, were probably critical. Mr Johnson could well have faced a suspension of more than ten days from Parliament, which would have probably paved the way to a by-election in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a not particularly safe seat in Londons suburbs. Instead, Mr Johnson jumped. According to Mr Johnson a cabal of Remainers was determined to remove him from power. He hammered Harriet Harman, a veteran Labour MP who led the investigative proceedings, for running a kangaroo court. He took a swipe at Sue Gray, who led the initial investigation into lockdown-busting parties in Downing Street when she was a senior civil servant, before later taking a job as chief of staff to the leader of the opposition. In retrospect it was naive and trusting of me to think that these proceedings could be remotely useful or fair, wrote Mr Johnson. In reality, Mr Johnsons downfall was of his own making. It was Conservative MPs who toppled him as prime minister last summer, citing his incompetence, unpopularity and inability to tell the truth. MPs will put up with each trait individually, but not all three at once. An attempt by Mr Johnson to come back after Liz Trusss government imploded in the autumn also failed. Likewise, Mr Johnsons efforts to cause trouble from the backbenches over topics such as Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland came to naught. The inquiry was merely punctuation on a paragraph Mr Johnson wrote. Now the Conservatives face three by-elections, which the party could easily lose. Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP and an ally of Mr Johnson, quit her Mid Bedfordshire seat earlier on June 9th after she did not receive a peerage in Mr Johnsons resignation honours. We had a number of conversations over the last 24 hours, said Ms Dorries on her contact with Mr Johnson. He knows exactly what Im doing. A day later Nigel Adams, another ally of Mr Johnson, also quit, triggering a by-election in a North Yorkshire seat the party may struggle to hold. But Mr Johnson provides a larger problem for the Conservatives than a few tricky by-elections. True, Mr Johnson is unpopular. His net popularity ratings suggest Britons find him roughly as appealing as Xi Jinping, Chinas autocrat. A return to power sounds like a preposterous dream for all but his most blinded supporters. Yet Mr Johnson has a knack for stealing attention. He has hinted at a comeback, declaring that he was sad to leave Parliament at least for now. Freed from the constraint of being an ostensibly loyal backbench MP, Mr Johnson can cause chaos, aided by commentators who cannot resist writing about one of their own. (He is, at heart, a journalist rather than a politician.) While he causes a fuss from without, he inspires loyalty among enough acolytes to cause trouble from within Parliament. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, wants to portray the Conservatives as competent. Mr Johnsons departure, and three messy by-elections, revives the sense of a shambles. Where there was at last a bit of harmony, Mr Johnson brings discord. Rumblings about a new party on the right have grown in recent weeks and will become louder with Mr Johnsons departure. Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the Conservatives 2019 victory, has produced a long stream of posts about how he would do it. (He has proposed, for example, stuffing Britains government with outsiders from Silicon Valley, or making J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, Britains leader.) Matthew Goodwin, an influential right-wing academic, has hinted at something similar, arguing that there is a space for an anti-establishment party that is a bit left-wing on economics, but hard right on social issues. Mr Johnson adds another unhelpful dimension. At the moment, Conservative support is kept afloatat around 30% of votersby the fact they have no parties to their right. Another entrant could turn an ugly election into an apocalyptic one for them. Mr Johnson is a politician of consequence, if not substance. It is unlikely that the campaign to leave the EU would have succeeded without him at the helm. Few other prime ministers would have chosen the constitutionally chaotic methods of forcing Britain out of the EU, such as wrongly suspending Parliament and kicking out 21 MPs from his own party. While his personal popularity was overdone, Mr Johnson secured the Conservative Partys biggest majority since Margaret Thatcher in the 2019 general election. He also showed uncharacteristic principle in his support for Ukraine in the face of Russian invasion. Even out of Parliament, never mind out of office, he will still try to shape Britain. Whether he succeeds is Mr Sunaks challenge.