And to think the Conservative party wants to warn voters at the next election of the dangers of electing a “coalition of chaos”. A country in desperate need of serious leadership has a government which regards getting to the end of each week as a strategic accomplishment.
Boris Johnson’s government looks like a Ponzi scheme running out of investors. His close circle is narrowing. The talent pool of ministers is shrinking to an ever weaker collection of careerists or loyalists. This is now a cabinet of such Lilliputian dimensions that most know they cannot rely on anyone else for preferment. Those Tory MPs still prepared to put their money into him are promised increasingly undeliverable and foolish policy returns as the price of their support. Voters who once backed him are inclined to sit out the next round.
Johnson’s allies may comfort themselves that, after the resignation of his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, and health secretary, Sajid Javid, the prime minister has stemmed the outflow of top ministers though the departures from lower ranks continue, each speaking volumes about the character of those who stay. They may even take pleasure in the appointment of Nadhim Zahawi as the new chancellor, with the promise of business tax cuts to spur growth. “We swapped a banker for an entrepreneur. A balance-the-books guy for a wealth creator,” says one Johnson ally.
But this is self-delusion. Zahawi depicts himself as a chancellor who will be led by the evidence. But a sober analysis of the data suggests that inflation is stubbornly high and that tax cuts are not the way out of it. Meanwhile, even a cursory analysis of Johnson must surely tell MPs that nothing is going to change. The deception, the lazy expediency, the casual indifference to detail or policy or the law; none of it will stop.
If one seeks a defining moment, perhaps it lies 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 is the core problem — that Johnson is so devoid of a moral compass that he can see only with hindsight that this was a mistake.
This is the organisational character of Johnson’s government, a system of courtiers in which the only trait of consequence is whether you are 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 because that is what courtiers are for.
Pollsters say that voters are rarely animated by sleaze scandals and personal failings, viewing all politicians through jaded eyes. But they are agitated about competence and this government now looks solely engaged on the political purpose of saving its leader.
An amoral leader might be borne were he effective. But MPs and voters can see a government that has run out of road, with no sense of a core mission beyond protecting the prime minister. The winning cavalier style that once cut through intractable problems has now given way to political incontinence. They sense a leader with no appetite for the hard choices that they may not like but might recognise as necessary and a leadership that believes you can spend money and not worry about where it comes from. His own MPs see a leader they cannot trust and a government of headlines not delivery.
Above all, they see 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. They see a government without a cogent economic plan. Perhaps Zahawi will stiffen the resolve to fight inflation, though the conflicting messages of his first interviews were not encouraging.
It does feel as though the battle is now about whether Johnson can limp on to the parliamentary recess in July. Till now, he has survived because of doubts about his successors and the belief that voters are unconvinced about the Labour alternative. But even previously loyal MPs are realising that the status quo is the greater risk and that change now could yet save the next election.
Non-Conservatives should know that what comes next may not be more attractive politically; there is a sizeable faction in the party for scrapping net zero commitments and slashing spending. But they can at least hope for some restoration of standards.
In his resignation speech, Javid reminded Tories that their moral and political values should be intertwined, that those who hanker for a more traditional fiscal conservatism should also cherish traditional conservative 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 supremacy of “whatever works” politics also broke their core political compass.
So if ministers and MPs need another reason for acting, here is one more. The collapse in values is not separate from the incompetence. Johnson’s crises sprang from an indifference to the rules which placed political purpose behind personal fulfilment. A weak leader begat a weak cabinet and a weak government.
This is what the voters and belatedly his MPs have grasped; that Johnson is not up to the job, not morally and not administratively. And it has finally caught up with him.