Pond Life

Déjà Blues

The longer one lives the more, by definition, one must be affected by déjà vu. But I’ve seldom felt it as keenly as on the afternoon of Wednesday 25 May. The Sue Gray report had just been published, and at 3.30 pm I watched the surreal, parallel-universe press conference given by our ill-tempered prime minister as part of his strategy to avoid having to resign. After blustering about how horrified he was by events and how he took full responsibility for them, it was clear he wasn’t, and he didn’t. If he had, he would not only have resigned, he would have gone into exile to lose himself in his titanic shame. But Johnson is a liar and law-breaker, interested only in himself, and is without shame. It’s simply the country’s, and his party’s, misfortune to be led by one of the most dishonest and disreputable men still at liberty.

And yet, it struck me we’d seen quite a lot of this before. Several so-called “grandees” from the last era of Conservative government – the one that ended in catastrophic defeat in 1997 – have reached for their metaphorical revolvers since Johnson blagged his way into Downing Street three years ago. They have, quite correctly, attacked him for trashing the Conservative brand. Many of them know about this first hand. On another Wednesday afternoon, in September 1992, they looked on as no one in the government took responsibility for the debacle of Britain’s propulsion from the Exchange Rate Mechanism of the European Monetary System. Black Wednesday, as it became known, was a turning point for a government that had then been in power for only five months – not the two years and five months of this one. That was the day the Conservatives lost the 1997 election, and many of us knew it at the time.

Well, Wednesday 25 May 2022 could become the day the Conservatives lost the 2023 or 2024 election. Had John Major – whose moral failings do not begin to rival Johnson’s – done the decent thing and resigned because of the catastrophic failure of his economic strategy, it is possible the Conservative party could have given Tony Blair a contest in 1997. Today, it’s not just the opinion polls that suggest the Conservative party will lose the next election unless Johnson is removed from office; it’s that same common sense that told us the game was up in 1992 unless Major fell on his sword.

In the days after the Gray debacle, when Johnson was, to use his own metaphor, “moving on” from the topic – though not quite so far as many would want – a steady trickle of his MPs announced they wanted him to go. There’s no suggestion their actions were co-ordinated. But they did offer a common explanation, which was that they could no longer defend the indefensible, felt insulted by Johnson’s hubristic response to the Gray report, and worried about the effect his behaviour was having on attitudes towards the political class. It’s hard not to see the truth of all of this.

Not all Tory backbenchers are stupid. Even those willing to back a charlatan fear for their jobs

And then, when it emerged that Johnson had – through some of his flunkeys – sought to influence the content of the Gray report, the steady trickle continued. And then further still, when it became clear that in his most banana-republic act to date he’d decided to re-write the Ministerial Code. This code has always specified that ministers who lie to parliament must resign. But not anymore. Johnson, of course, has refused to admit lying to the Commons about parties that he “thought” didn’t happen, even though he was at several of them and fined by the police for being at one. But now he can admit he lied, without the need to resign (although I’m sure he’ll struggle to break his habit of a lifetime, of lying about lying).

But for all those Tories who’ve reached the end of their tether, many have not. Indeed, no one on the payroll has so far felt that his or her moral standing should take precedence over their status, salary or ministerial car. Some ministers have left, but all from the Lords: Lord Frost, who realised Brexit hadn’t been “done”, and Johnson was incapable of “doing” it; Lord Agnew, the anti-fraud minister who couldn’t cope with the Government’s lie that it was tackling fraud; and Lord Wolfson, a lawyer of integrity who understood the impossibility of serving as a justice minister in an administration whose chief had utter contempt for that principle.

Of course, it’s important to remember two things when castigating the inaction of others. First, many are so mediocre they can only command a ministerial job by offering slavish loyalty to a prime minister for whom treachery is a natural impulse. Second, many are too young to know what history teaches on the subject. They were at school in 1992, scratching their names on their desks rather than watching then Chancellor Norman Lamont stand in the gutter in Whitehall, attempting to explain that afternoon’s events while his boss was nowhere to be seen.

Not all Johnson’s backbench colleagues are stupid. As they returned to their constituencies for the Jubilee recess, even those with no moral problem in backing a charlatan began to realise their jobs were in danger. The growing inevitability of losing the next election, and what it will mean for them personally, began to take hold. But unlike backbenchers, ministers in the bunker with Johnson find it harder to engage with reality. Some, such as Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, are said to entertain ambitions to lead their party. It seems they’ve misunderstood

entirely the damage done to their credibility by blindly supporting such a prime minister. Sunak is the more prominent example, and not just because he is Chancellor. Had he resigned on receiving his fixed penalty notice for illegal partying, Johnson would have been forced out with him. But now it’s too late. Sunak, for all his position and his private wealth, is just another morally failed politician.

Others too junior, or too shrewd, to seek the leadership, would be better off going the whole hog and leaving now before discovering that self-interest is no defence. They will have only themselves to blame if they do not. Anyone from this cabinet who survives into another Conservative administration will be remarkable indeed. For most, a political career post-Johnson will simply not exist.

Only those MPs who are not in the administration, notably Jeremy Hunt – the “I told you so” candidate following his defeat by Johnson in the 2019 leadership election – but also Tom Tugendhat, have a chance of succeeding Johnson when he runs out of rope. Unlike current ministers, they’re not guilty by association.

Once the Conservative party blew its chance of removing its then discredited leader in 1995, its defeat in 1997 became a formality. A number of cabinet ministers did not even retain their seats, notably Michael Portillo, the supposed leader of the anti-Major faction, who’d thrown his lot in with his leader in return for what became his last job in government. One is tempted to ask who will be the Portillo de nos jours. But of course none of Johnson’s rabble has a tenth of his talent, and cannot hope to present charming television programmes about railway journeys in either this political life or the next.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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