Boris Johnson's exit creates a test for Rishi Sunak

Johnson's resignation over the rule-breaking parties means there will be by-elections in autumn

Boris Johnson, departing his London home in March 2022, announced he will be standing down from parliament with immediate effect. EPA
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One of the popular tunes from the 1960s film The Sound of Music is about the tricky character played by Julie Andrews, a nun called Maria. She is constantly getting into scrapes. The song asks “How do you solve a problem like Maria? / How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak might think of adapting the words and singing the same song about his former leader Boris Johnson. How do you solve a problem like Boris Johnson? Isn’t he, as The Sound of Music lyrics continue, “A flibbertigibbet! A will-o’-the-wisp! A clown!” (A flibbertigibbet is – according to the dictionary definition – a frivolous, flighty or excessively talkative person.)

You can understand Mr Sunak’s irritation. He goes off to the US, is treated graciously by the Biden White House, returns to London in the hope of finally shaking off the past seven years of Conservative party in-fighting, and then? Boom! Another performance of the Boris Johnson All-About-Me-Show, as the former prime minister quits parliament in a huff.

It comes after an investigation into Mr Johnson’s attendance at rule-breaking parties during the coronavirus lockdown that he himself imposed on Britain. Two Johnson allies, including the former culture secretary Nadine Dorries, are also quitting parliament.

That means there will be by-elections this autumn. And that is unwelcome news for Mr Sunak. His popularity – or lack of it – will be put to the test. So, let’s be blunt. Since 2016, the Conservative party has been riven by feuds, plots and disloyalty. They appear to loathe each other. Four prime ministers – David Cameron, Theresa May, Mr Johnson and Liz Truss – have come and gone. Various factions, including the so-called European Research Group, act like parties within the party.

Johnson has no ideology. He has very few political convictions. What he does have is an astonishing ego and self-belief

Mr Johnson, despite his serious policy and personal failures, remains a hero to one faction within the party. And yet an inquiry by a cross-party group of MPs – a majority of whom are Conservatives – has decided to sanction Mr Johnson over his conduct, and to do so in a way that would open up the possibility of him personally facing a by-election and losing his parliamentary seat.

Rather than risking the voters wrath, Mr Johnson has quit, leading to charges of cowardice. Some newspapers see his resignation as a “declaration of war” on the Conservative government of Mr Sunak.

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson-supporting newspapers parrot Mr Johnson’s own view that he is a victim of a "Kangaroo Court" and a "witch-hunt".

All this seems ridiculous until you look across the ocean and digest the news about Donald Trump.

The former US president is facing extremely serious charges over his handling of classified documents. And he also claims there is a witch-hunt against him, while using his many scandals and legal battles to his own advantage, fundraising and bolstering his anti-establishment image.

Although the allegations against Mr Johnson are not of the same magnitude, he also employs the same “I am the victim here” strategy as Mr Trump. Both men seem to believe that there is no such thing as bad publicity.

Anything which puts them in the public view seems to burnish their image among supporters as “mould breakers” prepared to smash up “politics as usual” and victims of “the Establishment".

For an American billionaire and an Old Etonian to make claims of being “outsider” takes considerable chutzpah. These brazen techniques have worked at least with some sections of the electorate. But can these two extraordinary survivors continue to survive and thrive?

Can Mr Trump really regain the US presidency in 2024? Can he end up in the White House – or in jail? Can Mr Johnson really be plotting a political comeback? After helping to unseat his predecessors, Mr Cameron and Ms May, can he do the same with Mr Sunak? All this seems unlikely. But not impossible.

I’ve just finished reading Anthony Seldon’s new book, Johnson at 10, the inside story of Mr Johnson’s time in Downing Street. It ends with Seldon going through all the reasons Mr Johnson says he has been cast aside and concludes that he was not unseated by his enemies. He was undone by himself, his incompetence, careless, and inability to deliver.

Will he be back? Personally, I doubt that the traditionally ruthless Conservative party will ever again want to turn their fortunes over to the man who has divided the party for years.

The flibbertigibbet, the will-o’-the-wisp and the clown, however, may yet have the last laugh. Mr Johnson will make millions on the international speaking circuit, entertaining wealthy business audiences with tales of his many battles and wicked enemies. The trouble is that his record of achievement, beyond personal advancement, is meagre.

Mr Johnson has no ideology. He has very few political convictions. What he does have is an astonishing ego and self-belief. He has been a disaster for his party and his country, and yet I can confidently predict one version of history will be kind to him, for he will write it. A self-justifying book will undoubtedly follow.

Published: June 12, 2023, 8:20 AM