BORIS JOHNSON did not go quietly. He never does. The former prime minister resigned from parliament on the evening of June 9, after reading a report on whether he had knowingly lied to his fellow MPs about the extent of illegal parties under his care during the lockdown. Instead of leaving with dignity, Mr. Johnson went on the offensive, accusing enemies of an established order. “A witch hunt is underway to exact revenge on Brexit and ultimately to overturn the result of the 2016 referendum,” Johnson wrote.
The investigation had been hanging over the former prime minister’s head for months. The as-yet unpublished content of the report, shared with Mr Johnson last week, was likely critical. Mr Johnson could very well have been given a suspension of more than ten days from parliament, which would likely have paved the way for by-elections in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, a not particularly secure seat in the London suburbs. Instead, Mr. Johnson jumped.
According to Johnson, a cabal of Remainers was determined to remove him from power. He hammered Harriet Harman, a veteran Labor MP who led the inquiry procedure, for running a “kangaroo” court. He took a swipe at Sue Gray, who, as a senior civil servant, led the initial investigation into lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street, before later taking a job as chief of staff to the Leader of the Opposition. “In hindsight, it was naive and trusting of me to think that this procedure could be even remotely helpful or fair,” Johnson wrote.
In reality, Mr. Johnson’s demise was his own fault. It was Conservative MPs who toppled him as prime minister last summer, citing his incompetence, unpopularity and inability to tell the truth. MPs will tolerate each trait individually, but not all three at once. An attempt by Johnson to bounce back after Liz Truss’ government imploded in the fall also failed. Similarly, Mr Johnson’s attempts to cause trouble from the back seat on topics such as Brexit arrangements in Northern Ireland came to naught. The inquiry was just punctuation on a paragraph Mr. Johnson wrote.
Now the Conservatives face three by-elections, which the party could easily lose. Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP and an ally of Mr Johnson, vacated her Mid Bedfordshire seat earlier on June 9 after failing to receive a peerage in honor of Mr Johnson’s resignation. “We’ve had a number of conversations over the past 24 hours,” Ms Dorries said of her contact with Mr Johnson. “He knows exactly what I’m doing.” A day later, Nigel Adams, another Johnson ally, also resigned, triggering a by-election in a North Yorkshire seat that the party may struggle to keep.
But Johnson poses a bigger problem for the Conservatives than a few tricky midterm elections. Admittedly, Mr. Johnson is not popular. His net popularity numbers suggest that Britons find him about as attractive as Xi Jinping, China’s autocrat. A return to power sounds like a ludicrous dream to all but its most blinded supporters.
Still, Mr. Johnson has a knack for stealing attention. He has hinted at a comeback, stating he was sad to leave parliament “for now at least”. Freed from the compulsion to be a ostensibly loyal MP, Mr Johnson can wreak havoc, aided by commentators who can’t resist writing about any of them. (He is essentially more of a journalist than a politician.) Although he causes a stir from the outside, he inspires loyalty among enough acolytes to cause trouble from within parliament. Rishi Sunak, the prime minister, wants to portray the Conservatives as competent. Mr Johnson’s departure, and three messy midterm elections, revive the sense of a mess. Where there was finally a bit of harmony, Mr. Johnson brings discord.
Rumors of a new party to the right have been growing in recent weeks and will become louder with Johnson’s departure. Dominic Cummings, the strategist behind the Conservatives’ 2019 victory, has written a long stream of posts about how he would do. (For example, he has suggested cramming the British government with Silicon Valley outsiders, or making JK Rowling, the Harry Potter author, the British leader.) Matthew Goodwin, an influential right-wing academic, has alluded to something similar, saying arguing that there is room for an “anti-establishment” party that is a little left on economics but far right on social issues. Mr. Johnson adds another useless dimension. Right now, the Conservatives’ support – about 30% of voters – is held up by the fact that they have no parties on their right. Another contestant could turn an ugly election into an apocalyptic one for them.
Mr Johnson is a politician of significance, if not substance. It is unlikely that the campaign to leave the EU would have succeeded without him at the helm. Few other prime ministers would have chosen the constitutionally chaotic methods of forcing Britain out of the EU, such as unjustly suspending parliament and expelling 21 MPs from his own party. While his personal popularity was exaggerated, Johnson won the largest Conservative Party majority since Margaret Thatcher in the 2019 general election. He also showed uncharacteristic principle in his support for Ukraine in the face of the Russian invasion. Even out of parliament, let alone out of office, he will still try to shape Britain. Whether he succeeds is Mr. Sunak’s challenge.■