For a stable democracy of some lengthy duration, the United Kingdom can certainly do drama when it needs to.
The fall of a prime minister has been more often engineered from inside parliament than by electors, in recent times.
Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May all lost office without a general election. So it has been with Boris Johnson, who played a part in the political demise of both his predecessors, through his advocacy for the winning side in the referendum which ousted David Cameron, and by the ruthless guerrilla parliamentary tactics over Brexit, which felled Theresa May.
The irony that it was no such high political crisis which has lost him Downing Street, nor the sort of personal scandal with which his life has been littered, but the fallout from the late night indiscretion of a relatively obscure MP at a Pall Mall club, will not be lost on history.
The speed of events of the last week has astonished Westminster. Boris Johnson had made much of his political Teflon coating, projecting a larger-than-life personality quite different to the rather dryer inhabitants of high office.
His political reach, which enabled him to win the mayoralty of London’s diverse and rather unConservative population, gave him a reputation for reaching people beyond the usual clutch of his Party. Coupled with a successful campaign, against the odds, to win a referendum to take the UK out of the EU, cheered on by a significant section of Conservative parliamentarians and members, such successes fuelled an innate instinct that he was a man of destiny, waiting only for ‘the ball to emerge from the scrum’, so that he could pick it up and march to Downing Street.
But this rise obscured character failings, which, when glimpsed in office, were glossed over by too many people, and not taken seriously enough by him and his closest advisers. A carelessness over detail, a tendency not to prepare, and a relationship with the truth which was occasionally distant were the traits which one day were going to get him.
The recent crisis which has led to his downfall has involved, as with the issue of Downing Street parties during the Covid crisis, a failing to tell the truth at the beginning and a process which required ministers to place their integrity on the line as they publicly repeated a version of events ultimately punctured this time by a senior civil servant’s unwillingness to stand by as lies were told that discredited his former department.
The trail this time led irrefutably to Boris Johnson, and finally, as former Health Secretary Sajid Javid stated in the House of Commons, on behalf of hundreds of his MP colleagues, enough was enough.
Normally the loss of confidence in a PM’s cabinet is fatal enough without a swathe of junior ministers resigning as well. What has been more astonishing in these events was Johnson’s refusal to accept that he could no longer govern having lost the confidence of so many MPs and ministers.
For many hours he holed himself up with his closest allies in Number 10, refusing their pleas, as friends and colleagues, that for the good of the country and his party, he should go, precipitating a constitutional concern about how the function of government could be continued with gaping holes in the administration.
But even when he did, as he resigned this morning, there is a sting in the tail — he intends to continue in office as a “caretaker” PM, until the election of a new leader is concluded in September.
This is not unconstitutional, but it seems most unwise, bearing in mind the singular nature of his departure. It is not a policy issue, as saw off Theresa May, but one of trust and integrity in government, as many MPs and ministers have made clear in their resigning letters. How a cabinet is supposed to function, when senior members such as the chancellor and attorney general have expressed their lack of confidence, seems barely credible.
So one drama is over but another begins. As the UK resolves this constitutional dilemma, which may trigger a parliamentary vote of no confidence if the opposition smell blood and a wounded Conservative Party, eyes will turn to Johnson’s successor. There is a wide field.
The Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has distinguished himself over Ukraine. The Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi has a rare but effective back story as an Iraqi refugee, and a reputation for competency over the vaccine distribution. Former cabinet members who resigned, Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid, will probably run, as will Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and non cabinet stars such as Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugenhadt.
This is a far from settled matter. And who would rule out that Boris Johnson thinks he has only bought himself some time, and may come again?