Boris Johnson won't back down despite resignations. Britain will pay for it

Despite the UK's receding global standing, the Prime Minister will continue to dig his heels in

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson is flanked by then health secretary Sajid Javid, left, and then chancellor Rishi Sunak in Parliament in September 2021. AFP
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On Tuesday evening, Westminster was on tenterhooks.

Two down, one more to go. Would Nadhim Zahawi follow the other two "big beasts", Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, out of the UK Cabinet?

The thinking among Conservative members of Parliament was that Prime Minister Boris Johnson might attempt to ride out the departure of his Chancellor and Health Secretary, but the exit of the Education Secretary would prove fatal.

It was more to do with Mr Zahawi’s steep ascent and the position he was thought to hold, as someone who had been implacably loyal to the Prime Minister throughout, becoming a regular apologist for Mr Johnson’s behaviour on the round of broadcast interviews, than his ministerial role.

In the end, he stayed, seeing off an attempt to promote Liz Truss, and moving into Mr Sunak’s seat in the Treasury.

Ever one to turn the threat of disaster into an opportunity, Mr Johnson and his cohorts were quick to seize the moment. Mr Sunak, who was resolutely opposed to tax cuts, had gone, to be replaced by someone who is in favour of lowering taxes and likes to be seen as an experienced voice of business and, therefore, more appealing to his party’s traditions (already, Mr Zahawi, with Mr Johnson’s blessing, is letting it be known he will review the proposed raising of corporation tax).

Mr Javid, who was regarded by the Johnson camp as ideologically weak, had also quit and his successor, Steve Barclay, too, is viewed as stronger, firmer, more "on message".

Johnson's preservation takes priority over the national interest

In fact, what’s not to like? The pair of troublemakers in the Cabinet, who were suspected of working in tandem – a suspicion confirmed for Johnsonians by the manner of their joint leaving – are no longer in government. Now the Cabinet has a more robust, stronger look about it.

It says much about the febrile atmosphere surrounding Downing Street that such views are given credence, that every straw is there to be clutched. It also points yet again to the character of Mr Johnson, as someone who refuses to budge, who possesses the thickest of skins. Like the character of the Black Knight in Monty Python, his limbs are torn from him, yet he remains utterly defiant.

Such stoicism would be admirable, except that what Mr Johnson is accused of – and shown to have committed – is serial lying, dissembling and obfuscating. The result is a diminution of authority, a weakening of high office that trickles down, right through the public service and across society.

He is the Prime Minister and he cannot be trusted. No one knows if he is speaking the truth. That is a terrible indictment and one that has repercussions internationally. Thanks to Mr Johnson’s flaws, Britain’s standing on the global stage is becoming akin to that of the US in the era of Donald Trump. Other leaders are listening, but behind the facade they’re disbelieving and sometimes even laughing.

For a nation that has set a new course, dropping its EU partners and seeking to develop friendships elsewhere, that is a dangerous path. One made even more treacherous by the current state of the global economy. Just when the UK should wish to appear confident and command respect and attention, striking trade deals and attracting investment, all the impetus in government is devoted not to selling the country but to shoring up its leader.

Everything is about survival, so the preservation of Mr Johnson takes priority over the national interest. Over the Tory party, too. This is where he is at his weakest. His MPs put first and foremost their chances of being re-elected at the top of their watch lists. From the moment they stand victorious as the votes cast are read out, their number one aim is to keep their job.

Britain's newly appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer, Nadhim Zahawi, in central London on Wednesday. AFP

So far on his roller-coaster ride, Mr Johnson has been able to persuade them that he is still the person with the most likelihood of delivering that objective. Private party polling has consistently revealed that while a large swathe of the public disapproves of Mr Johnson’s cavalier approach to the lockdown rules, sufficient numbers will vote for him – on the basis they retain some fondness and admiration for him, they have faith that he remains the best Tory choice for Prime Minister and they prefer him to the Labour party’s Keir Starmer.

What’s changed is that the Chris Pincher episode highlighted that despite overtures to the contrary, Mr Johnson has not made amends. He promised to reform his ways, that his administration would henceforth be founded upon honesty and integrity. The claim that he did not know there was an issue with Mr Pincher, followed by the admission that he did, put paid to that.

Worse, it suggests not only that Mr Johnson has not made amends but that he never will, that he can’t and won’t. As he said himself in a recent interview, his psychological make-up cannot be altered.

So, Tory MPs have realised they will go into the next election having to defend someone proven to be a serial peddler of falsehoods. That’s not balanced either by evidence of a resilient economy or delivery of his much-vaunted goal of “levelling up”.

The irony, then, is that it’s all to do with survival – of Mr Johnson in his bunker and the MPs in their constituencies. In their desire to go before the electorate with a standard-bearer who is credible, who will enable them to retain their seats, they will ditch Mr Johnson. He won’t concede. So, the battlelines are drawn and on the fight goes. At the same time, Britain’s government is frozen and its standing overseas continues to slip.

It is a grim state of affairs. The end might be nearer but there could still be some distance to go.

Nick Donaldson / The National
Published: July 06, 2022, 10:51 AM