JOHN OXLEY, LONDON
?The demise of Boris Johnson and the Cosmopolitan Globalist guide to watching the Tory leadership contest like a pro.
Political fortunes collapse slowly, then all at once. So it was for Boris Johnson, the now outgoing Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. For twenty years he had built a seemingly unassailable position in British politics. It unravelled in twenty hours.
The scandal which brought him down was almost mundane, utterly unremarkable for a man whose political and private life has been marked by perpetual dishonesty and betrayal. On June 30, Chris Pincher MP, a deputy chief whip for the government, released a resignation letter stating that he had “drank far too much” the previous night and “embarrassed himself.” This was quickly followed by a more thorough tabloid exploration of the night in question: Pincher had groped two young men at the Carlton Club, an exclusive, private venue known as the Conservative Party’s spiritual home.
In the following days, more allegations of Pincher’s pinching emerged. It was reported that multiple Members of Parliament and staff had been the objects of unwanted overtures, and Downing Street had known this before offering him a government role in February. Johnson, of course, denied any knowledge of Pincher’s predilections. The lie quickly unravelled. Not only did it become clear that Number 10 had known, but that Johnson had been warned as far back as 2017, when an aspiring MP had described Pincher in the press as operating like a “poundshop Harvey Weinstein.”
After months of slipping through scandals, the Prime Minister was caught in an unambiguous lie. In ruder political health, he might have pushed through, but his usual tactic—“I can keep blustering longer than you can keep mad”—had run out of road.
For more than six months, his position had been eroded by scandal after scandal. Back in December, another obscure contretemps blew up in his face. A long-standing backbench MP, Owen Paterson, was found to have taken inappropriate payments from lobbying companies. After a parliamentary committee recommended he be suspended from the House, the Commons was asked to vote to confirm the sanction. Boris instead chose to fight it, questioning the fairness of the proceedings and proposing changes in the procedures for examining parliamentary misconduct. It was a debacle. Public outcry forced the government to recant, Paterson resigned his seat, and the Conservatives lost the ensuing by-election, in normally safe Tory territory, by a country mile.
This segued almost effortlessly into Partygate, a swirling scandal that bled the PM for months. Again, the allegations were simple: Johnson and other Downing Street staff had held parties in their offices while the rest of the country languished under strict Covid lockdown rules. Details dripped out, with the image of staffers drinking until they threw up contrasted with those denied a chance to see their dying loved ones or people being moved on by police for being too close to one another in the park.
The Johnson government only made the crisis worse through its perpetual intransigence. Rather than tackling the allegations head on with an apology and contrition, the blusterer blustered. It turned into month after month of incessant revelations and deflection. Johnson was fined by the police and became further mired as each excuse turned out to be not entirely true.
Further scandals ran in the background. Boris was subject to an investigation into the way he had funded a lavish redecoration of the Downing Street flat; political donors, it seemed, had funded its fabulously expensive new wallpaper. He faced an enquiry about public funds given to his then-paramour Jennifer Arcuri back when he was Mayor of London. (She has since become some sort of Covid conspiracist on US television.) On top of this came long-running questions about his links to Russian oligarch-turned-British newspaper proprietor Evgeny Lebedev, whom Boris had nominated for the House of Lords.
Of course, Boris’s response to a scandal had always been the same. He was the magic politician with no need for the trivialities of dignity and honesty. By treating such things as mere puff, he blundered through on his inherent popularity. As his opponents circled, he pointed to his electoral success. Just three years ago, he took the Tories to their biggest victory for thirty years. He single-handedly swayed the Brexit vote and had become the Tory mayor of Labour-leaning London not once, but twice. To ditch him, he averred, would be suicide for the Conservatives.
When Conservative MPs amassed enough of a rebellion to force a vote of confidence in the leader, Boris won. His parliamentarians backed him by 211-148, less than a month before the Pincher revelations. In theory, this secured his place in Downing Street for another 12 months, as party rules barred another vote against him.
The public, however, could take out their frustrations elsewhere. A week before Pincher’s pinch, the Conservatives faced two by-elections, each forced by scandal. In Wakefield—one of the so-called Red Wall seats, once-safe Labour areas won over by Tory support for Brexit—the sitting MP had resigned after being convicted of sexually abusing children. The seat, which the Conservatives would have hoped to hold in happier times, swung to the Labour Party.
At the other end of the political spectrum, the Conservatives faced another fight in super-safe Tiverton and Homerton. This true-blue country seat had fallen vacant after Neil Parish admitted watching pornography in the Commons chambers. (I’m not sure at what point this all became unbelievable, but I assure you it is true.) Here, a Conservative majority of 24,000-ish votes at the last election became a win for the Liberal Democrats, who achieved one of the most shocking electoral victories of recent British history. Both losses punctured Boris’s bulletproof façade.
A week later, Boris found himself in unfamiliar territory. He’d made a success of being a rogue and a liar who defied electoral gravity. Now he was a rogue, a liar and a liability to his Party. He’d been caught in an obvious, bare, and unambiguous lie. He tried to escape, but this time the bridges had been rigged to blow.
In short succession, two of his leading cabinet ministers, Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, resigned. They could go on with it no longer. Or didn’t feel it was worth going on with. Boris had never had natural allies in his party, instead relying on those who tried to ride his coattails to success. Now they were turning on him. All around him, resignation letters began to flow. Throughout successive crises, he’d bought loyalty by handing out government baubles. Now they added an extra shine to those who were coming to undo him. Parliamentary Private Secretaries (little more than minister’s bag carriers, but a mark of progress for ambitious young politicians) now immolated their positions, while Trade Envoys (cushy gigs with foreign travel for the aging back-bencher) reached for their poisoned pens.
By Wednesday morning, Johnson appeared to have few allies left. The Chancellor he’d appointed to replace the resigning Sunak announced that while he wouldn’t resign, Boris should go. Home Secretary Priti Patel, a former Johnson loyalist, made it clear she was only staying in place because the country couldn’t function without someone in that role. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss conveniently found herself on successive 18-hour flights.
Within Downing Street, two cabinet camps emerged. In one room, the Pincher Putsch came to a head. Heavyweight ministers assembled, informing Boris it was time to go. Graham Bready, the head of the backbench committee that sets the rules for votes of confidence, suggested scrapping the 12-month grace period. Elsewhere in the building, loyalists to Boris assembled. A few were true believers, but more were those whose loyalty to the PM had seen them promoted above their ability. They urged him to stay. The PM was shuffled between them like an Edwardian parlor comedy.
It became clear this was his final act. Reluctantly, he announced that he was going. His speech outside Downing Street was combative. He showed once again the secret to how he weathered so many scandals—a complete lack of shame. Honor was for the others. Unconstrained by such petty-bourgeois morality, he had cheerfully collected former wives, spurned lovers, vanquished rivals, and public adoration.
Only a small crowd of supporters gathered to see him go. There were far more outside Downing Street shouting him down. Attention was already moving on—to the ensuing leadership contest and the next Prime Minister.
The man who tried to defy conventional politics met its most conventional end—defeat.
??? The CG guide to choosing the next prime minister
How does it happen?
The 1922 Committee (best imagined as a sort of trade union for Tory MPs) whittles all the nominees down to two candidates. This is done over a few days, with MPs voting once or twice a day. There are 358 of them, and usually all turn out to vote. To speed things along, the ’22 (as it’s normally called) has said that candidates need the support of 20 MPs to enter the contest, and any with fewer than 30 votes in the first round will be eliminated. After that, the candidate with the fewest votes gets eliminated, until only two remain.
The ’22 has been called the most sophisticated and duplicitous electorate in the world. MPs will often pledge themselves to more than one candidate, hoping to get a favored position when the dust settles. Equally, candidates in a commanding position might “lend” some votes to help someone through to the next round ahead of a rival they consider stronger. Once candidates are eliminated, they will generally endorse someone else—but that doesn’t mean all their voters will go where they wish. It’s student politics and game theory on speed.
When the final two are confirmed, there will be a poll of the 100,000 or so ordinary members of the Conservative Party. For US readers, it’s best to think of this as like a closed primary. This vote happens by mail, with a campaigning season of around six weeks. A decision is expected to be announced on September 5.
? The Runners and Riders
As of 6 pm BST on July 12, the 1922 Committee has confirmed the following are on the ballot paper for the first round:
☑︎ Kemi Badenoch
Unexpected entrant who even more surprisingly made the ballot paper with enough nominations. She entered parliament in 2017 and was quickly acclaimed as a rising star, holding a few minor positions. Her pitch so far has focused on social conservatism, attacking “woke universities,” and opposing mixed gender bathrooms. She has secured some heavyweight support and may be a surprise.
Attorney general in Boris’s government and committed Brexiteer. Braverman is running from the right of the party, with eye-catching promises such as withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights. If anyone is, she’s the continuity Johnson candidate, but it’s unclear if the appetite for that still exists.
Beaten by Boris in the 2019 final round, he was the voice of moderation in that fight. Didn’t serve as a minister under Johnson, but has lots of experience from the Cameron and May eras. One of the least tainted by Boris’s reign, but may seem a bit like yesterday’s man.
One of the current favorites, Morduant’s pitch has been based on humility and gentle patriotism. She’s shooting from the unoffensive middle, presenting herself as a voice between the extremes of the party. One to watch.
The Wunderkind. At just 42, he’s already made a fortune in the City and served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Running on a conservative economic platform, he’s promising tax cuts and growth. But he’s undermined by his service under Boris and his reluctant embrace of high government spending during Covid. Though he presents himself as the son of immigrants done good, his immense wealth (his marriage makes him a billionaire) and previous use of tax avoidance measures may undercut his campaign.
Another favorite, Truss served as Foreign Secretary under Boris and may be tainted by that association. More damaging is her flakiness. A prominent young Liberal Democrat, she came to the Tories late and proudly supported Remain before flitting overnight to the ardent Brexiteer camp. Tries to push herself as the libertarian element of the Conservative Party while also trying to court social conservatives on such issues as trans rights. May glide through, may break under the exposure of a campaign.
The insider’s outsider. In many ways the traditional Tory choice. He has served in the military, including stints in Iraq and Afghanistan, and represents a seat in true blue Kent. He comes from a family of judges and politicians, yet his opposition to Boris kept him on the fringes of party power. He may be trying to appeal to a wing of the party that no longer exists, but he may also become the moderate’s choice. If he doesn’t win, expect him to cut a deal to be Foreign Secretary.
Unlikely to go anywhere. Another immigrant success story, he moved from Iraq to the UK as a child, then made his fortune running a polling company. He served steadfastly under Boris, including leading the government’s highly successful vaccine rollout. Appointed to Chancellor during the Pincher Putsch, but didn’t reward that with loyalty: He knifed Boris the day after. He too will run from the economic right of the party, making early pledges to cut corporate taxes. Not bad per se, but possibly too ordinary to stand out.
??? The Tory leadership betting pool
Want to take a guess? Make your prediction in the comments along with a prediction of the final vote count among all ordinary members of the Conservative Party). The winner will receive a handsome copy of There is No Alternative, signed by the author.
John Oxley is a writer in London.