Boris Johnson's intended return had turned UK politics into global satire

Liz Truss's brief but dismal stint had already damaged the state of the Conservative party

A Pro-EU campaigner holds a placard blaming former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson during a march to rejoin the European Union in London, on October 22. EPA
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In many ways a second act would have been easier to achieve than breaking through in the first place.

At least that seemed to be the prospectus Boris Johnson was offering his traumatised political party. Mesmerised by the gloom resulting from the Conservative party’s annus horribilis in 2022, the bouncing Boris bombshell, that he was considering a return to power, was proving irresistible to colleagues who not so long ago held him in contempt.

MPs who denounced Mr Johnson on Twitter two months ago were now announcing support if he tried to take over from Liz Truss. In the end, Mr Johnson last night ruled himself out of the race.

Up until then, however, it seemed like politics was running on fumes.

The UK has a self-inflicted threat of bankruptcy hanging over it. It no longer commands much of an audience in foreign affairs. It is incapable of leadership in areas where it once used heritage and diplomatic guile to set the weather.

This is politics running on fumes

Take its sluggish policy on Iran. No cigarette paper width of distance has come between London and the efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the tarnished 2015 nuclear deal that has a zombie-like hold on international negotiators.

Britain issued sanctions on Iranian entities tied to the drone programme, in response to allegations that these are being exported for use in the Ukraine war, but only matching those imposed by the EU. Britain did little when these drones were deployed in Yemen with disastrous consequences.

Back to Mr Johnson. Until last night, he was the only serious impediment to Rishi Sunak emerging as the next British prime minister. Mr Sunak served as Mr Johnson’s finance minister and performed, in hindsight, a remarkable feat of running a tight financial ship under the most profligate of recent British premiers.

As chancellor of the exchequer, Mr Sunak gave little away about how he was running things. We now see why. He was treading a very narrow path for the UK economy, around some enormous holes in its financial soundness.

Once Ms Truss was let loose, the magnitude of the weakness was plain.

Now the Conservative government, which has still two years of its parliamentary term to run, must come up with a plan that satisfies the markets. The need is stark when the UK is seeking, as it did last month, to sell £20 billion ($23bn) or more of debt every few weeks.

The idea that Mr Johnson had worked out how to do this, were he to return to the hot seat, was for the birds. The injection of energy and optimism that he offered may have been welcome but it was an intangible.

The US dollar squeeze on the world economy will continue to be an objective reality that Mr Johnson couldn't have blustered around. Add to that, his second term was likely to be immediately plunged on to a knife edge about previously misleading the House of Commons. In the UK, this is the gravest offence for a politician and by the rest of us, it is essentially known as lying.

Greg Hands, a junior minister who opposed Mr Johnson, recalled last weekend trying to quit on principle from Mr Johnson’s government in July. The prime minister offered him a place in the cabinet as Northern Ireland Secretary. Mr Hands said it was scarcely conceivable this sensitive post was dangled as sop. He quit anyway.

It is unlikely that the technocratic, sure hands such as Mr Sunak's or the steady veteran Jeremy Hunt would have served under Mr Johnson has he won this week. That is because there was no second version of the flamboyant former mayor of London on offer, merely the classics-loving sponge of political illusions who imploded the last time around.

Rishi Sunak outside his home in London, after Liz Truss resigend as Prime Minister. PA via AP

The economist Simon French says there is a “dullness dividend” available to the UK. He says this confidence boost could amount to billions of pounds as the next budget is thrashed out, perhaps around one fifth of the looming fiscal gap.

Here's the thing. The UK has become a global fascinator. A satirical report came out last week with the headline that Ireland had run out of popcorn as the UK crisis came to a head. The US right is fascinated by the flameout of the radical shift that Ms Truss, who promoted ministers almost entirely from the ranks of Mr Johnson’s loyalists, tried to ramrod through the British political and economic system.

The result is evident: it looks like a grim mess.

Published: October 24, 2022, 4:00 AM