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Boris Johnson, the UK Prime Minister, has resigned. He has presided over the 7th shortest Prime Ministerial reign, a time that has been rocked by scandal after scandal. How did we get here?

Left with hardly any fingernails left as he gripped tenuously to power, this morning’s fresh wave of government resignations left him with no choice. Yesterday, in the often entertaining but rarely enlightening duel that is Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons, the opposition leader (Labour’s Keir Starmer) eviscerated the PM. It was an open goal, of course, and Starmer really had to score. I have never seen more open derision as in this scuffle, with a few nice touches like “the first case of sinking ships fleeing the rate” and “the charge of the lightweight brigade” thrown in.

The Ides of March

Yet it was not the opposition who scored the winning goals, but Johnson’s own colleagues who led to the toppling as the Ides of March played out yet again at the top of the Conservative Party.

What had happened in the 24 hours prior to this encounter, and has continued happening until Johnson’s announcement, was a wave of resignations from front-bench cabinet ministers and secretaries of state to swathes of Parliamentary Private Secretaries (a PPS is a Member of Parliament who acts as an unpaid assistant to a minister).

The latest number of resignations stood at around 55 or so. Let that sink in. If you were the boss of an organization of almost 360 people, and 55 of them just quit their roles telling you how bad you were, this should be telling you something.

Eventually, it did. As the education secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, was moved to replace the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Treasury who resigned, the new education secretary was Michelle Donelan, quickly promoted from minister. She resigned less than 24 hours later, this morning, along with the science minister and others. And then Zahawi himself urged the PM to go.

The context here is that Boris Johnson, a month ago, narrowly survived a vote of no confidence with 41% of his own party’s MPs declaring they had no confidence in his leadership. That number had grown considerably since then, with resignation letters flying about like vultures. In similar votes, previous PM Theresa May had fewer MPs dissenting (37%) and she was soon gone. Margaret Thatcher, in her political demise, had a smaller proportion of no-confidence votes and was gone within a week.

The writing was on the wall for Johnson. The past is a good predictor of the future.

Scandal after scandal

He has been plagued by scandal: repeatedly lying to the electorate (which doesn’t seem to count for anything these days, both sides of the pond); lying to the police and investigators, breaking his own lockdown rules to enjoy a host of parties (where the chair of the investigation had to step down for hosting his own party); failing to “establish the full facts” about a free holiday to a luxury villa in Mustique; embarking on a £112,000 refurbishment of his official Downing Street flat without knowing how it would be paid for, where an undisclosed loan was used to help finance it, leading to a £17,800 fine on the party; and many more.

Yet it was not the opposition who scored the winning goals, but Johnson’s own colleagues who led to the toppling as the Ides of March played out yet again at the top of the Conservative Party.

This is all on top of wider political scandals involving Tory MPs, including the following:

  • Owen Patterson resigned after an “egregious” breach of lobbying rules, illustrating the amount of money being thrown around to garner power in the cloisters of Westminster.
  • Then former Conservative minister Andrew Griffiths was found by a high court judge to have raped his wife and subjected her to coercive control.
  • In addition, Tory MP David Warburton was suspended from the parliamentary party after a number of allegations relating to sexual harassment and cocaine use.
  • And, famously, MP Neil Parish resigned his seat after admitting he twice watched pornography in the House of Commons chamber! That’s like a Senator watching pornography on their phone in the Senate. This prompted a huge byelection loss after a massive swing to the Liberal Democrats, making many Conservative MPs very nervous about public opinion.
  • The Conservative MP for Wakefield, Imran Ahmad Khan, was recently found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy after plying him with alcohol at a party in 2008. The Wakefield byelection that resulted returned the seat to Labour.

These and many more scandals have mired the Conservative Party and have tainted Boris Johnson’s public image in domestic politics. Which is why he was spending so much time concerning himself with Ukraine (even missing an important conference appearance up north to take an unannounced trip to Kyiv, where he is something of a hero). It was a classic distraction technique. After all, as a biographer of Winston Churchill, Johnson had always wanted to be that type of wartime leader.

The camel and the straw

Then, this week, it turns out that the deputy chief whip was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Government whips are responsible for making MPs vote the way the party wants them to vote, making sure they toe the party line. The whip’s office keeps a little black book of all the misdemeanors that MPs do in order that they can blackmail the MPs to work to the political ends of the party. Chris Pincher was the MP and whip in question. He got drunk the other night and proceeded to grope two men at the Carlton Club, a private members’ club. He came to work the next day and resigned because he had “drunk far too much,” declaring that “I embarrassed myself and other people.”

As the dust still swirls in the air, the Machiavellian men in gray suits are already deep into plotting and planning their course through two years of political machinations.

How this terminally affected the PM is that Johnson apparently knew about some previous claims of sexual misconduct and still promoted him to a whip. Johnson allegedly referred to Pincher as “handsy” and Dominic Cummings said Johnson joked about him being “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” in 2020. As you can imagine, this hasn’t done the PM any favors as he appears to have minimized claims of sexual harassment, ignoring them to promote a sexual predator into a position of significant political power.

Johnson denied he knew about Pincher’s past before he promoted him until a report was released that showed that he did, prompting an embarrassing u-turn.

Letters and more letters

Yesterday, we saw resignation letters from two of the most important cabinet members (the Chancellor and the health secretary), This was a foreshadowing of things to come. Today’s final resignation was probably enforced by the people who Johnson brought in (Nadhim Zahawi and Michelle Donelan throwing in their towels too). Be under no illusion, though, this would be self-preservation rather than anything else, as Lord Frost, hugely influential in the Conservative Party, publically announced the following:

If you didn’t excoriate Johnson in public, your own political future was in the balance.

Then, yesterday again, a “group of men in gray suits” visited the PM to tell him to resign. One of them was Michael Gove, the housing minister. Johnson sacked Gove immediately.

And yet, the PM held on. Despite all of this, he seemed to think he could weather the storm. But let me just relay some of the content from the torrent of resignation letters he received. His own MPs were plunging such a variety of knives into him that he and you should be under no doubt about his shortcomings.

I’m afraid the culmination of your lack of transparency and candour with parliament (and willingness to ask your ministers to mislead parliament), your removal of key pillars of the ministerial code, your handling of your appointment of a deputy chief whip who it turns out you knew had a history of sexual abuse allegations, is too much. This is seriously damaging public trust and respect for government, democracy and the law, and this great party’s long tradition as the party of standards, character, conduct, integrity and duty to office and country before partisan self-interest.

Your leadership, the chaos in No 10, breakdown of cabinet collective responsibility and collapse of public confidence in government represents a constitutional crisis. It is also now seriously undermining our authority in key negotiations on the world stage at a time of urgent international crises.

George Freeman, science minister

I have gone out and defended this government both publicly and privately. We are, however, now past the point of no return. I cannot sacrifice my personal integrity to defend things as they stand now. It is clear that our party, parliamentary colleagues, volunteers and the whole country, deserve better …

A divided party cannot win elections. It cannot deliver for those who trusted us with their votes for the first time in 2019.

Brandon Lewis, Noorthern Ireland secretary

There are so many more really incisive and excruciating letters. But MP Mark Logan probably summed it up the best, resigning as PPS and posting this on Twitter:

What was most disappointing

Throughout all of this—and bearing in mind that I have listened to an awful lot of commentary over months from the whole gamut of Conservative voices—is that the calculation for whether Johnson should go or not has been about political strategy and not about morality. Yes, some of the letters and tweets have talked about “integrity” and have included important buzzwords. But when the vote of no confidence was put in place by the influential 1922 Committee (a group of backbenchers who wield a lot of power), the discussion about whether he should go or stay was exclusively about his electability going forward, not his moral shortcomings as a human and a leader then.

If you didn’t excoriate Johnson in public, your own political future was in the balance.

No one was claiming that Johnson should resign because of his moral shortcomings, because of his continuous lying, because of the scandals in and of themselves. Boris Johnson was never evaluated as an intrinsically moral agent. Instead, he was (and probably still is) seen only in his ability to secure votes from the public in future elections. Was he a political asset or a political liability? And by a small majority, the MPs saw him as an asset, being the excellent campaigner and TV personality he undoubtedly is.

Until they calculated he wasn’t.

How interesting it is that we no longer see people as moral agents, but only as means to an end. Those moral conservatives in the US can so easily forgive or ignore Donald Trump’s moral shortcomings because of what he can offer them. People don’t resign any more because they cock up or do terrible things, they resign because the players around them publically recognize that they have no political use.

What now?

The first problem is whether his resignation takes immediate effect or, if he gets his way, whether he will be in position until Autumn. The Guardian has reported certain ministers being distinctly unhappy with an Autumn withdrawal:

Two ex-ministers have told the Guardian they think it not possible for Johnson to stay till the autumn.

One said: “He needs to be gone by tonight, Raab should take over.” Another said: “He needs to hand in the seals of office today and go. So we can have a caretaker PM.”

Another highly senior Tory source who has been with Johnson over the past 48 hours said his behaviour meant it was dangerous for the country for him to stay. The source said:

“His behaviour in the last 48 hrs and been reckless and erratic. He cannot be trusted to lead the country until the autumn. God knows what he will do.”

One former government adviser said it was “dangerous” for Johnson to stay in post. Another ex-minister called him “a disgrace”.

This will be the order of the day, and no doubt ongoing wrangling for the rest of the week. When Labour’s Gordon Brown was in a similar position back in 2010, Boris Johnson had a few choice words to say:

While many on the left may be cheering at the resignation of the UK’s political bogeyman (or hero, or “I like him, he’s funny”-man, depending on where you are at), there is a serious concern as to who will replace him. We are two years away from a general election, all things remaining equal, and there appears to be a power vacuum with Johnson gone. I could regale you with names of potential Conservative Party leader replacements, but my American readers in particular will not have heard of most (if not all) of them. Okay, here are a few: Zahawi, Mordaunt, Braverman (my local MP…), Tugendhat, Wallace, Hunt, Baker…and…Truss (please, no).

The problem for the left is the power of the aforementioned 1922 Committee. If, as I think, they include members who are further to the right than many moderates in the party, then we may see a battle to install a more rightist candidate.

UK politics, Brexit aside, is often about fighting for the middle ground. But Brexit still looms large. However, with growing recognition that Brexit will not and simply cannot offer the benefits it promised, many Tories are now arguing for a rethink. But those realistic Tories, like Tobias Ellwood (who would otherwise have a really good shot at PM), are invalidated from running because the candidate will have to be strong on Brexit. “Get Brexit done” was the mantra that got Johnson elected, and it remains front and center of Tory politics.

The Conservatives will have to do some serious strategizing to work out their best path forward. In navigating their way out of this political sleaze mess, they will need to maintain the center ground in their crosshairs while also pandering to the noisy right full of arch-Brexiteers. And they have just lost a number of byelections, two of them in the “Blue Wall” of incredibly safe Tory seats. The Tories lost a massive 24,000 majority as the Liberal Democrats won with a further 6,144-vote majority in the Devon seat of Tiverton and Honiton, as well as a similar swing to the Lib Dems of 25 points to lose Chesham and Amersham (who turned a 16,223 deficit into an 8,028 majority).

Either way, and with an economic crisis on our hands, this would be a prime time for a general election for the opposition, who are recording some byelections that provide stinging rebukes to the ruling party.

But two years is a long time in politics, and the Conservatives still have a healthy majority. There is political capital to be made here. We shall be watching in the wings to see whose investments pay off the most. As the dust still swirls in the air, the Machiavellian men in gray suits are already deep into plotting and planning their course through two years of political machinations.

Jonathan MS Pearce

A TIPPLING PHILOSOPHER Jonathan MS Pearce is a philosopher, author, columnist, and public speaker with an interest in writing about almost anything, from skepticism to science, politics, and morality,...