The late Lord Carrington set an example that modern politicians would do well to follow, writes Tom Peterkin.
There was a fearful symmetry about the passing of Lord Carrington at a time when the British body politic is still reeling from the resignation of one of his successors as Foreign Secretary.
On the most superficial level, the late Lord Carrington and Boris Johnson would appear to have quite a bit in common.
When Mr Johnson quit on Monday, he became the first Foreign Secretary to resign since Lord Carrington left Margaret Thatcher’s Government over the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina in 1982. And on that same day, by a strange coincidence, Lord Carrington died at the age of 99.
Both men, it could be said, come from traditional Tory backgrounds with Mr Johnson, an old Etonian and a product of Oxford University and the Bullingdon Club.
Also an Etonian, Lord Carrington’s background looks distinctly anachronistic by today’s standards. But it was not that unusual in a bygone political era. He was a hereditary peer, who was never elected yet held some of the great offices of state.
Both men, like many politicians, could be charm – even panache – itself. Although Mr Johnson’s unique breed of charm, based on oafish buffoonery, seems to have lost some of the lustre that made him such a draw on the Have I Got News for You circuit.
But, the closer one looks at the two characters, the similarities are harder to find. The contrasts become more evident and are not greatly to Mr Johnson’s credit.
Yesterday’s fulsome obituaries of Lord Carrington recalled a patrician, paternalistic old-school “One Nation” Tory.
Unlike Mr Johnson’s gaffe-laden courting of celebrity and love of a photo opportunity, Lord Carrington was reticent to a fault when it came to self-promotion.
He was so self-effacing that when writing his memoirs he didn’t bother to mention that he had won a Military Cross in the Second World War. Some thought it should have been a Victoria Cross. But when asked in an interview how he won it his answer was “pot luck”.
As a civilian member of a post-war generation, Mr Johnson has never had the chance to win a military decoration. But while Lord Carrington drove a tank on to a bridge over the Rhine and held the enemy at enormous personal risk, Mr Johnson is known for being filmed stranded on a zip-wire.
They may have both resigned as Foreign Secretary, but the circumstances surrounding their departures could hardly be more different.
Lord Carrington resigned as Foreign Secretary three days after Argentina invaded the Falklands. He felt he had no option other than to go, taking responsibility for the Foreign Office’s collective failure to foresee that trouble was on its way.
“The nation feels there has been a disgrace,” he wrote in his memoirs. “Somebody must have been to blame. The disgrace must be purged. The person to purge it should be the minister in charge. That was me.”
Despite Mrs Thatcher trying to persuade him not to go, he went and, to this day, it is seen as the act of an honourable man.
History, one suspects, will not judge Mr Johnson quite so kindly.
Given his ability to conjure up a memorable turn of phrase, it was no surprise that his resignation letter was a classic of its kind.
In it, he complained that Brexit was “dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt”.
Needless self-doubt is not something that has troubled Mr Johnson when it comes to his own ambition and it is difficult to escape the impression that his decision to quit was all about him.
In fact, it would appear almost every political move he makes is all about him.
The former Foreign Secretary’s critics believe his decision to embrace the Brexit cause before the 2016 EU referendum was more to do with his own Tory leadership ambitions than any matter of principle.
Similarly, those self-same critics believe his departure to be driven by exactly the same motive – his own desire to end up in Number 10 Downing Street.
Mrs May had installed Mr Johnson in one of the most crucial posts in her Cabinet on the basis that, as a Brexiteer, he should shoulder his share of the heavy lifting in these difficult times.
In fact, Mr Johnson was more of a hindrance than a help – a disruptive influence at a time when politicians should be pulling together.
In the world of Boris, as soon as David Davis leapt off Mrs May’s increasingly precarious ship, he had little option but to do likewise.
Had Mr Davis been the only Cabinet minister to disembark that would have made him the only figurehead for disaffected Tory MPs to rally round and mount a challenge to Mrs May.
Had Mr Johnson stayed in the Cabinet and been bound by collective responsibility (inasmuch as Boris Johnson can ever be bound by collective responsibility), Mr Davis would be given a free run when it came to stirring up trouble for the Prime Minister.
Now Mr Johnson also lurks on the sidelines making himself a focal point for Tory dissatisfaction with the current leadership. We will never know how Lord Carrington would have viewed this state of affairs. But he did once say: “I had no desire whatsoever to lead the party – nor ever had.”
Were Mr Johnson to say something similar, one suspects it would not bear much relation to the truth.