He offered them Wagner but gave them Offenbach. History’s verdict on Napoleon III serves also as a fitting epitaph for Boris Johnson. The prime minister sold voters a vision of a second Churchill but delivered only, well, a first Johnson.
We are into the final days of the Johnson era; maybe the final hours. But it is over. Tuesday’s resignations of his chancellor and health secretary started an unstoppable flood. The only unanswered question at time of writing is the mechanism of his exit.
It was all rather thrilling at first: an unconventional cavalier cutting through seemingly impassable thickets to “get Brexit done”, rout Jeremy Corbyn and redefine the Tory base, reaching out to working-class voters in a way the party had not managed since Margaret Thatcher’s day.
Yet ultimately Johnson’s triviality, indifference to convention or rules, dishonesty, absence of personal morality, lack of strong political convictions and readiness to outsource the hard work to aides, cast his government adrift.
By the end, his government resembled nothing so much as a Ponzi scheme running out of investors. Increasingly wild promises being offered to retain MP support; his close circle narrowing, the cabinet talent pool shrinking to an ever more supine collection of careerists so Lilliputian that most knew they could not rely on anyone else for preferment. It is striking that the two resigners aside, the party’s most senior figures outsourced bravery to their juniors until the outcome was clear. A weak leader begat a weak cabinet and a weak government.
If one sought a defining moment perhaps it was in the prime minister’s admission that “with hindsight” he saw that appointing a man he knew to have form as a drunken groper as his deputy chief whip was “the wrong thing to do”. With hindsight! This was the core problem, that Johnson was seemingly so devoid of a moral compass that he could see the mistake only in retrospect.
But this was the organisational character of his government, a system of courtiers in which the single trait of consequence was whether you were useful to the king. Pincher helped him win and keep office. Everything else was someone else’s problem. And when the issue blew up, aides and ministers were sent out to lie for him in the hope that he could blag his way through.
While Pincher is the immediate cause of his downfall, the real reason is that his MPs have finally grasped that nothing was going to change. Until now, Johnson survived because of doubts about his successors and the belief that voters are unconvinced about Labour. But even previously loyal MPs finally came to see the status quo as a greater risk to their chances at the next election.
Pollsters say that voters are rarely animated by sleaze scandals, viewing all politicians through jaded eyes. But they are agitated about competence and this government looked to have no core mission beyond saving the prime minister. A country in desperate need of serious leadership had a government which saw getting to the end of each week as a strategic accomplishment.
Voters sensed a leader with no direction and no stomach for hard choices, one who appeared to believe you can spend money and not worry about where it comes from. They saw public services struggling with backlogs and labour shortages, waves of strikes and inflation which is likely to stay higher and last longer than for comparable nations. And above all they saw a government with no cogent economic plan for tackling any of this.
Ultimate judgment on Johnson depends on one’s view of Brexit. To supporters this achievement will outweigh other failures. To opponents this remains the ultimate indictment.
In the face of two global shocks, Johnson can also claim credit for the furlough policy, the vaccines rollout and his stance on Ukraine. But against all this is the undermining of institutions, the deceptions, lockdown breaches which shattered the principle that legislators must follow their own laws, the treaty violations and constant assault on international law.
Non-Conservatives should realise that they may not find what comes next more attractive; there is a sizeable faction of MPs for scrapping net zero commitments and slashing spending; for intensifying culture wars and Brexit battles. Johnson did not resile from the climate change agenda or support a return to austerity. He was even a restraining force on culture warriors in his government. At least some of the serious contenders to succeed him cannot be counted on to hold these lines.
But what all can at least hope for is some restoration of standards. In his resignation speech Sajid Javid reminded Tories that their moral and political values should be intertwined. Those who hanker for a more traditional fiscal conservatism should also cherish more fundamental values, especially a respect for the institutions and the rule of law. In the crazy whirlwind of Brexit many lost sight of those values.
The collapse in values is not separate to the incompetence. Johnson’s crises sprang mostly from an amoral indifference to the rules which placed political purpose behind personal fulfilment, temporary headlines before delivery. This is what the voters and belatedly his MPs have grasped.
His successor may or may not restore the Tories’ electoral fortunes. But their primary job will be to rebuild the basic principles of public life, so comprehensively trashed by Johnson.