Power plays

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely

Some people go into politics because they want to make a difference. To make the world a slightly better place for the people around them. Others go into politics because they want to be in power, for it to be their decisions, their actions that matter, and that get remembered. Boris Johnson is one of these people.

Johnson’s surprise resignation as an MP on Friday from the marginal seat of Uxbridge could have been, possibly was supposed to have been, the start of a civil war in the Conservative Party, triggering so many by-elections that Rishi Sunak’s leadership would be permanently crippled. Is this what the erstwhile PM intended? Did he imagine a slew of resignations, akin to the haemorrhaging of support that ended his own premiership? If so, he was sadly mistaken. Only three by-elections will be held, to decided the successors to not just Johnson himself, but also Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams (no, me neither), both of whose toys are firmly out of the pram and on the floor. Enough, perhaps, to wobble the Sunak ship, but not to capsize it.

Why did Johnson resign? Was it in a fit of pique? An out-pouring of outrage that his resignation honours list wasn’t going to go through on the nod – some eight names were, it seems crossed out? Or, was it an attempt to control the narrative? He would rather resign with immediate effect on, as he perhaps sees it, his own terms, than be unceremoniously dumped, having been found guilty of mis-leading Parliament over the Downing Street parties held during lockdowns.

Mis-leading Parliament, the very same thing that did for John Profumo in 1963, back in the days when we seemed to hold our politicians to higher standards. Did Johnson mis-lead Parliament? Yes. It wasn’t just Downing Street either. The revelation that there were lockdown-breaking parties hosted by him, at Chequers, something that he had denied in Parliament when questioned, was the last straw for the privileges committee. The last straw, it seems for Johnson, on the other hand, was hearing that the Tory Whips would not instruct MPs to vote against the sanctions proposed by the committee. A source close to Johnson reports that his response to this was “I’m ……” well, you can fill in the rest yourselves.

Chances are, Johnson’s resignation was also tiggered by the fact that his seat, Uxbridge, is a marginal one, and has long been one of the key targets for the opposition parties, particularly the Liberal Democrats. Michael Gove’s is also a key target, as was Dominic Raab’s – one of the reasons why he has announced he’s not standing as an MP next time. The phrase ‘Portillo moment’ has entered our lexicon to indicate the mighty brought low. Nick Clegg and Ed Balls had their own such moments, but Portillo’s was first. Johnson, whose scatterbrained, tousled, bumbling persona is an act, and who cultivates that image carefully, was never going to risk that happening to him.

Have we seen that last of him in Westminster? Probably not. A boy whose first stated ambition was to be “world king”, didn’t have enough time in the sun not to try and have another stab at something. That’s not to say that he would be welcomed back with open arms, or even at all. Teresa May is derided for squandering the electoral majority that David Cameron left her with. Johnson, who did not do right by either of those premiers, has managed to squander the Parliamentary goodwill upon which he sailed back into Downing Street in December 2019.  And he did that to himself. I wouldn’t wish having to be Prime Minister through Covid upon anyone, no-one is denying that it was probably an impossible task to do completely right, but he is the author of his own downfall.




About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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