How Boris Johnson has, in his own words, become like David Brent refusing to accept he's been sacked – John McLellan
Not my words, not those of the many commentators trying to make sense of the last few days, and not even about Boris Johnson, but a description of Gordon Brown’s last day in Number 10 after his 2010 election defeat. Hubris isn’t in it, because the author was one Boris Johnson, drawn to my attention by one of those many fine Conservative councillors who lost his seat in May, thanks largely to Mr Johnson’s casual relationship with truth and integrity.
Radiators reminded me of the gripping finale to the gangster movie classic Angels with Dirty Faces in which James Cagney’s tough guy Rocky Sullivan begs “I don’t wanna die” as he’s dragged off to the electric chair. There was none of that in Mr Johnson’s pugnacious resignation speech but his pleadings with Cabinet colleagues behind closed doors on Wednesday evening were no less desperate.
At risk of stretching the Cagney comparison too far, there was the Prime Minister on Thursday morning, defiant to the last, standing on his own flaming political gasometer like Cody Jarret in White Heat, yelling “Made it, Ma, Top of the World,” as his world went up in flames around him.
Except unlike Jarret, the cops doused the blaze and led Mr Johnson from the wreckage, and unlike Sullivan, the chair wasn’t ready for him and he was granted a stay of execution to remain Prime Minister until a successor is found.
Despite his considerable achievements, the overwhelming majority will remember the Johnson era not as a Film Noir thriller or Greek tragedy but a prolonged Whitehall farce in which, according to undenied reports, he was literally caught with his trousers down. A madcap denouement to madcap years is what we should have expected.
From the bravado of Prime Minister’s Questions to the rocking braggadocio in the Liaison Committee, and then the vindictive and vengeful sacking of Michael Gove at 9pm on Wednesday night, each chime of Big Ben was accompanied by another ministerial resignation.
Even Dilyn, Johnson’s dog, knew it was over and after a morning holed up like Gordon Brown, the Defiant One emerged in the early afternoon to tell the world what it had concluded the night before.
It’s forgivable that his resignation speech focussed on the many positives, but less so the total absence of humility, contrition, or acceptance of any personal failing.
Instead, criticism was dismissed as “sledging”, as if the many people of substance and standing who had lost patience with him were simply the political equivalent of stubbly, sweary, Foster’s-swilling Australian cricketers. Composed for sure, as if he knew he’d be rumbled eventually, but reflecting his premiership ─ arch-critics like Sir Max Hastings might say his entire personality ─ dignity was distinctly lacking.
His Westminster colleagues, he fumed, were sheep, acting out of herd instinct to dump him, not sound political judgement, but the Cabinet took the extraordinary collective decision to entrust the Prime Minister with assembling and running an interim administration, despite trust being the very thing over 50 ministers, private secretaries and trade envoys had lost.
As his power of patronage should have evaporated, it was yet another illustration of his extraordinary conjuring ability; call it the last act of a political magician’s power of persuasion or the hypnosis of the weak, replacement ministers like James Cleverley, at education, could have cauterised the argument about whether he should stay or go by taking the posts only on condition he handed over to a caretaker on Monday.
I know meetings chaired by a sacked boss are not pretty, but if the team has done the sacking they’ll be impossible, yet this is what the Cabinet, still seemingly in thrall to Mr Johnson, has chosen.
From Thursday’s audience in Downing Street, there are none closer than Scotland Secretary Alister Jack, standing like the father of the bride next to Carrie Johnson, and his to-the-death loyalty could make him an obvious target as the new Prime Minister seeks to make a clean break with the past.
But whether he remains or not, it should be a priority to re-cast both the relationship with Scotland and improve public awareness of the ways in which the Scotland Office and Scottish Parliament group work together.
It’s not about the personalities but demonstrating how the big economic levers pulled in London and the day-to-day service delivery controlled in Edinburgh can fuse to produce a better outcome for Scottish people, rather than the negative impact of a Scottish Government controlled by a party whose first instinct is always to act against the United Kingdom’s interests.
Why are many Scottish results poorer than Denmark and Norway? If significant administrations awakened each morning for the past 15 years determined to undermine Copenhagen or Oslo, the record might be different.
It's temporarily more difficult while the Johnsons are still sulking in the expensively refurbished flat above Number 11, but the job now is to give the Scottish party a real sense of rebirth and confidence, to return to strong Conservative values of low tax and small government and create a sense of momentum.
Early signs are positive, with renewals and new applications in Edinburgh alone boosting membership by around ten per cent. Nor should the rejuvenation of Scottish Labour be feared, because competition between the unionist parties can create a positive debate about the possibilities and opportunities of a confident United Kingdom, compared to a demonstrably incompetent nationalist administration which believes the only answer to an economic crisis is to add a constitutional crisis on top.
Speculation about the new Prime Minister is pointless, but whoever it is must be able to demonstrate a firm grip. And this time, of a lot more than the Downing Street radiators.
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