Boris Johnson’s premiership is no more. He had haemorrhaged support to a point that was simply untenable, and by the end it was far from clear that he would even have been leading what can be described as an administration.
It speaks volumes to Johnson’s total narcissism and entitlement that faced with such a situation, there was still suspicion that he would somehow attempt to battle on or even might try to trigger a general election. A brazen disregard of rules and conventions and any loyalty to colleagues has been his hallmark, just as has his tolerance of misbehaviour by supportive colleagues and subordinates. His serial mendacity makes for an appalling spectacle, and the risk is not yet over: if Johnson remains as caretaker prime minister while a successor is found, it cannot be discounted that he will discover a way to inflict further damage on Britain’s international reputation.
The strangest aspect of this sorry saga, however, is that a Conservative Party that once prided itself on upholding our political institutions, conventions and traditions, and claimed that it would always try to act with propriety and in the widest public interest, put up with Johnson for so long. Even if viewed solely through the prism of self-interest, it has been obvious since the Owen Paterson affair that the public had rumbled Johnson and he had lost their confidence last year. Partygate should have been the last straw. Yet still Conservative MPs either continued to insist his appalling behaviour should be forgiven because he was a winner, or wrung their hands helplessly and usually only in private as he dragged them all down. The Conservative Party has been collectively tainted, corrupted and damaged by Johnson’s behaviour and influence over it.
The problem that brought to Conservative Party to this point is not an aberration. It is the direct consequence of not being able to control or come to terms with the political instability the Leave vote in 2016 inevitably created, of which Johnson was key architect. Making him PM showed an open willingness by Conservatives to use him to break rules and conventions to secure Brexit. Entirely predictably, he used these means successfully, and equally predictably it delivered nothing but serious economic and political challenges and administrative chaos.
Johnson’s actions both over Brexit and in government have also broken the underlying consensus that has held the party together. Without the respect for the constitution, institutions and conventions of the state which previously characterised it, its internal divisions are shown with starkest clarity. Free marketeers, angry at the failure to deliver the deregulation and low-tax economy they desire, confront fellow Leave supporters who want more public expenditure in their constituencies to help levelling up. The liberal Conservatives are marginalised and the pragmatic centre silenced. All will look with foreboding at a leadership election that is unpredictable in outcome and will be determined by Conservative Party members who are increasingly unrepresentative of the electorate who actually vote Conservative.
If the Conservative parliamentary party is to survive and do any good in future, it needs to come to an appreciation of how it created this monster. That is going to require asking hard questions as to how it abandoned the delivery of quiet government for revolutionary upheaval and taking a realistic view of what can reasonably be achieved to restore stability and build prosperity. It then needs to find and insist on a leader who can deliver this, and to abandon the fantasy politics that have taken both the party and our country to such a sorry state.