Boris Johnson is not done. His next move in politics could be even more alarming | Martin kettle
AAs this summer has shown, no prime minister enthusiastically relinquishes power. Almost without exception, British leaders leave office in a bad mood, between fury and fatalism. Herbert Asquith and Edward Heath stand out among the former inhabitants of 10 Downing Street as two who could never come to terms with their downfalls. Both went to the same Oxford college as Boris Johnson.
Most prime ministers try to at least pretend to be accepted, but grit their teeth. A few – Arthur Balfour, Neville Chamberlain and Alec Douglas-Home among them – even later served in the cabinets of other prime ministers. The palm of good grace, however, goes to Stanley Baldwin, who allegedly told police at the Downing Street gate on his last outing in 1937 that he was leaving with a spring in his step.
That absolutely won’t happen when Johnson finally leaves in a month. Some of the reasons for this are unique to Johnson, a reminder that he is a different kind of person and politician, and we’ll get to that in a moment. Other reasons, however, are not.
Power is a drug. Politicians take it literally. Having to give up power is painful and humiliating. In an extreme case, like that of Donald Trump, the pain can cause delirium, although the American system has devised useful transition rituals to soften the blow, which Britain lacks. But the pain of lost power is something all leaders feel, even the wisest. Fighting against the dismissal of power is a natural reflex.
We know this from political history. But we also know this from mythology. At this moment I know this with particular vividness because Richard Wagner says it is so. I write this from Bavaria, as I attend Wagner’s four-part opera cycle in Bayreuth this week. Yet even as Wagner’s music unfolds, the echoes of conservative party politics are hard to escape.
This is because the central theme of Wagner’s epic is the attempt of Wotan, lord of the gods, to cling to world power by any means possible. Eventually, and most importantly, Wotan accepts that his battle is lost and – this is Wagner’s enduring message – that something entirely new must replace the old order. Yet even Wotan remains incredibly irritable at the time of the actual loss, and afterward he is a broken force.
Johnson is not lord of the gods, although he once said he aspires to be king of the world. But, like Wotan and all people of power, he struggles to accept that he can no longer dominate the scene. In Johnson’s case, the struggle with this reality is uneven as she must contend with his narcissistic personality, his need for risk and stardom, and the successes he has achieved by ignoring rules and conventions.
All of this provides the context for the bubbling belief among Johnson’s supporters and opponents that he is likely to attempt a comeback. It’s a campaign the seeds of which he himself sowed with the narrative of the ‘herd’ betrayal in his Downing Street speech, his ‘hasta la vista’ endorsement of the Commons and his recent remark that his ousting was the greatest couture since the Bayeux tapestry.
It’s also a belief he’s doing nothing to hold back, not just among the useful idiots who tell the Daily Express a comeback is likely next year. Nadine Dorries and Michael Fabricator might seem like D-list cheerleaders for a serious campaign. But this week YouGov pollshowing that 53% of Tory members think Johnson’s ousting was a mistake, and putting him well ahead of Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak as their favorite leader, will do nothing to dampen talk of Johnson’s second coming.
If that’s going to happen, though, it’s important to apply some of the realism that Johnson’s cheerleaders typically eschew. Under current rules, Johnson must remain an MP to be a candidate for any return to the Tory leadership. This raises three questions.
First, Johnson must avoid being suspended after the House of Commons privileges committee flagged whether he had misled parliament over Partygate, as it could trigger a by-election he could lose. Second, he has to hold his constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip in the general election, which may not be easy, and has sparked malicious speculation that he could take over the much safer seat of Dorries in Mid-Bedfordshire. Finally, he must decide what role he will play in the Commons from September.
This is the crucial point. It’s as much a question of temperament as it is of strategy. Temperamentally, Johnson seeks not only the limelight but also revenge. He is naturally vindictive and disloyal, as shown by his removal of an entire generation of Tory talent from a nation ahead of the 2019 election. Unlike, say, Margaret Thatcher, who spoke of revenge for her ousting in 1990 but then failed to walk, the incontinent part of Johnson who wants revenge will not be easily appeased.
Johnson’s real problem, however, is strategy. The vengeful Johnson that is being constructed by the Daily Express is a Johnson who would lead the Tories from the backbenches and then challenge for leadership. That may be plausible if Sunak wins in a month, but not if Truss does. Truss is now the new leader of the right and she is on her way to leading the party. If Johnson wants a comeback, he can only wait for Truss to fail or try to engineer his failure. Neither is guaranteed. Both are messy.
It’s possible that Johnson is about to launch a leadership revenge saga on the Conservative Party that would end up shaming Hamlet. All in all, it’s unlikely. Johnson’s ego, however, will need an outlet. It is more likely to go through the media than through parliament. He is a born performer. Broadcasters and press barons, including in the United States, are likely to offer him the money he needs as well as the opportunity to make waves.
Perhaps we should think less of Johnson as the impending Trump of British right-wing politics, and more of him as something almost as alarming. He could become a new kind of disruptor on the British scene, a right-wing media shocker, a role that Nigel Farage has played but does not take seriously. Johnson would. He could become Britain’s version of American populist broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, setting the agenda from outside the political system. He could become the man without whom nothing in politics can be done but who does not have to bear the consequences. That kind of power and money without accountability would surely suit Johnson just fine.