Boris Johnson's political career may face similar fate to Joan Collins in Land of the Pharaohs but we'll miss him when he's gone – John McLellan

I don’t wanna die, I don’t wanna die, howls a doomed Joan Collins at the climax of Land of the Pharaohs.

Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins in the 1955 film Land of the Pharaohs (Picture: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock)
Jack Hawkins and Joan Collins in the 1955 film Land of the Pharaohs (Picture: Warner Bros/Kobal/Shutterstock)

I don’t know how many times I’ve seen the cheesy 1955 Hollywood sword-and-sandals epic tale of Ancient Egyptian palace intrigue, but it never fails to grip me to the end when treacherous Princess Nellifer meets her fate.

Thinking she has successfully schemed and murdered her way to become Regent Queen, she finds herself trapped inside the Great Pyramid with dead Pharaoh Jack Hawkins and a platoon of mute priests who will accompany him into the afterlife.

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“There's no way out," High Priest Hamar tells a sobbing Collins as blocks of stone rumble into place to seal the tomb while she clutches at his calves in desperation. “This is what you lied and schemed and murdered to achieve. This is your kingdom."

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Now why would I be reminded of Land of the Pharaohs this week? The story of a devious operator who will stop at nothing to become absolute ruler, and just when the goal has been achieved it all ends in tears?

After all, Boris Johnson has been Prime Minister for two-and-a-half years and isn’t about to be bricked up inside Number 10 but, with the drip-drip of resignation calls and the departure of trusted advisers like Munira Mirza, maybe going round the Cabinet and Downing Street officials and, like Joan Collins grabbing the mute priests by the shoulders, begging for help isn’t so far-fetched. From his defiant Commons performances, he clearly doesn’t wanna die.

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Maybe you need to see the movie… at least Land of the Pharaohs is different from Downfall parodies and bunker imagery conjured up by Dominic Cummings, but you get the idea.

Tory-friendly commentators have been trying hard not to write him off for weeks now, reflecting the views of a rump of Conservative MPs that, apart from waiting for the Sue Gray report there was still time to change, to turn things round, but it’s a dwindling band.

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After a week which started badly with the redacted Gray report and then got steadily worse with a slew of depressing economic news ─ an insistence that the 1.25 per cent National Insurance increase must go ahead, interest rates going up, and power bills to soar by around £700 per household ─ at times it felt like Britain had entered a parallel universe as a Conservative government was defending tax increases and Labour were demanding they be reversed.

As if to confirm the new political normal, Chancellor Rishi Sunak unveiled a batch of reliefs and loans to help “take out the sting” of the rising cost of living which were straight out of the Gordon Brown book of bureaucratic complexity which will cost thousands to administer, instead of abandoning the tax rise.

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Just like the temporary Universal Credit top-up, it stores up political trouble when the reliefs end or the loans are clawed back. You can hear it now, “Tories are putting up the Council Tax for the poorest by £200”.

Backbench MP Peter Bone’s accusation that Mr Sunak was a socialist will have chimed with many colleagues, and it's beyond bizarre for Conservatives to be wondering if delivering a properly low-tax, small-state Conservative government involves dumping a Conservative Prime Minister.

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In calling for senior ministers to collectively take the whip hand, the editor of the influential Conservative Home website, ex-minister Paul Goodman, wrote plaintively, “If the Cabinet won’t act, I begin to ask what the point of it is – all the way to the top.”

The point was supposed to be illustrated by Michael Gove’s Levelling Up White Paper, at over 300 pages hardly the dead-cat distraction described by political opponents, but there is no time for it to make a meaningful impact as part of a Boris 2.0 relaunch programme.

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The principles are laudable, as they always are in these “ambitious” policy blueprints, but with optimistic delivery targets set for 2030 and only two years to go before the next General Election, they look more like the basis of a manifesto than the instant transformation plan Mr Johnson urgently needs.

The vaccine roll-out has shown that when dynamic action was needed the Prime Minister was up to the job, while up here the Scottish government is arguing about sawing chunks off classroom doors as part of its Covid strategy, diverting civil servants to work on a referendum it can’t hold, and gender recognition legislation few people understand.

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Nicola Sturgeon’s authority may be unchallenged, but with Scottish politics feeling becalmed, apart from the usual argy-bargy about the constitution, what is she is doing with it?

The economy is an urgent priority, and Kate Forbes taking forward the UK government’s free ports project is a refreshing change of tone. Maybe the SNP will astound us by co-operating on Levelling Up, but the First Minister’s failure to commit to passing on the new Council Tax relief suggests the SNP’s default remains seeing UK initiatives primarily as posturing opportunities.

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To focus Scottish voters on the SNP’s actions, or lack of them, requires the Number 10 drama to end; as Macbeth said, “Twere well it were done quickly”.

And yet, I can’t help but think we’ll miss him when he’s gone. No matter who succeeds him, Prime Minister’s Questions won’t have that sense of the unexpected, of lines about to be crossed like the mickey-taking about Ian Blackford’s girth, and of lines ignored altogether like the badly misjudged, self-harming Jimmy Savile jibe at Sir Keir Starmer.

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For years, he has been the only British politician that non-political people might be prepared to pay to see, who would fill a bigger hall than Alex Salmond’s smutty Assembly Rooms gigs, but his box office appeal is inextricable from being a liability.

As the pyramid tomb stones rumble into place, the remaining question is who plays Hamar. He died with Joan Collins too.

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John McLellan is a Conservative councillor in Edinburgh

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