foreign interests

The Bonfire of the Tories

Boris Johnson’s comeback attempt failed, but that won’t save the party from itself.

Boris came back, but there won’t be a comeback. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images
Boris came back, but there won’t be a comeback. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Images via Getty Images

Britain’s ruling Tory Party is on fire. The prime minister Liz Truss, installed after Boris Johnson resigned in July, also resigned on Thursday after a disastrous “mini-budget” with unfunded tax cuts spooked the markets and her home secretary resigned. Her downfall came amid a chaotic vote on fracking that saw Truss’s chief whip reportedly in tears, as Truss chased her through Parliament, begging her not to resign. The deputy chief whip apparently said, “I am fucking furious, and I don’t give a fuck anymore.” A backbench Tory MP told the BBC: “I hope all those people who put Liz Truss in No. 10 — I hope it was worth it. I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box, I hope it was worth it to sit round the cabinet table. I’ve had enough of talentless people putting their tick in the right box not because it’s in the national interest but because it’s in their own personal interest.” Tory MPs apparently went to bed “crying” — they have that in common with the country. Labour is polling up to 39 points ahead.

Now we have another Tory leadership election, as Britain faces a cost-of-living crisis. TV reports spin, with awful cognitive dissonance, from Tories fighting to people unable to feed their children. But fear not: Boris Johnson, the man who started it all with Partygate — his illegal parties in Downing Street while the country was under COVID restrictions — and anointing Truss his successor, returned to save us. Or, rather, to save us from himself by losing, but he doesn’t understand that. Like King Lear, who would split a country if he could not lead it, he has ever but slenderly known himself.

He was on holiday in the Dominican Republic when it broke that Truss had collapsed ahead of schedule. He still has a job, as MP for the outer London constituency of Uxbridge, and Parliament is sitting, so he should be at work, though, to be fair, he earned $350,000 this month speaking to some insurers in Colorado. But the niceties don’t really apply to him: Who doesn’t need a holiday during a cost-of-living crisis? And like a king across the water, or a shabby Batman, or a bigger Napoleon, he flew back to London, was blurrily photographed in economy class — for the optics, you understand — and reentered frontline politics like the temporarily reformed adulterer who is his most essential self. Johnson, at least, is not boring. Britain has long substituted his personal dramas for a functional liberal democracy, because we chose to treat politics as entertainment, and it brought us this.

Thousands tracked his flight across the Atlantic. “I hope you enjoyed your holiday boss,” tweeted one Tory MP, “Time to come back. Few issues at the office that need addressing.” Johnson was photographed on the telephone to supporters — or no one, who can tell? — looking, said a Twitter wag, like an ex-cricketer selling car loans to pay the alimony. His father, Stanley, was an early endorser of his campaign. So was the government of Ukraine. Better Call Boris, they tweeted, then deleted.

The first 48 hours were a phony war: Everything happened backstage. Not wanting to repeat the two-month spectacle of the summer leadership election — the country was repulsed by the spectacle of the two finalists gloating to Tory members about removing funding from deprived urban areas (Rishi Sunak) or pondering whether France is an ally (Liz Truss) — there are new rules.

Candidates must have 100 votes by 2 p.m. on Monday to get on the ballot. (There are 357 Tory MPs.) If only one candidate gets to 100, they will automatically win. Rishi Sunak — Johnson’s chancellor, whose resignation ended his rule and last time’s runner-up — and Penny Mordaunt, who came third in the summer, are standing. Johnson, hungry for the last drop of attention, did not officially declare, but his acolytes insisted he was running. The nomination papers, they said, were ready.

The last two will go to a vote of the 172,000 Tory Party members who tend, with adamantine spite, to choose the worst candidate. They are largely white, affluent, southern, and furious: They cheered when Truss said she was ready to use nuclear weapons. Tory members are capable of anything. One of them rang a radio show to say that Sunak, who was born in southern England to parents of Punjabi descent, couldn’t really love England like other people do.

Sunak is ahead among parliamentarians as I write, with at least 146 named endorsements from MPs, including some former Johnson loyalists, and MPs on the right of the party. The right loves Johnson because the right is most resistant to reality, but they may be pulling back. Sunak declared his candidacy on Sunday morning after a failed summit with Johnson, which was, in the words of one insider, “like getting pandas to mate.” Mordaunt, a former defense secretary who passes for a centrist and can almost speak human, has 24 endorsements. Mordaunt would have won last time if Johnson hadn’t intervened on Truss’s behalf. If she can get 100 endorsements by the deadline, she may win — because Tory members are capable of anything.

Johnson was the key, and that is how he likes it: people watching him summon victory from ashes, to prove something to ghosts we cannot see. His supporters say he has electoral magic: He won an 80-seat majority in 2019 on the promise to “get Brexit done,” and they think he can repeat this. He has changed, they said, even as he was photographed flying back from a two-week holiday when Parliament is sitting. They forgot that he has only ever beaten far leftists at the ballot box, and never from 39 points behind, and that narcissists cannot change. They ignored, too, that Johnson is facing a parliamentary inquiry for misleading Parliament on Partygate, and he would have had to govern while it winds on. Some Tory MPs would have refused to vote with him. If you thought his first government was dysfunctional, his second would have been an apocalypse.

On Sunday afternoon, Johnson supporters insisted he had the 100 votes he needed to get on the ballot, but only 57 had backed him publicly. Did the rest even exist? Sunak was the Establishment candidate last time and he failed against Truss’s small-state castles in the sky, fantasy war with France (so retro), tax cuts, and whiteness. If Johnson had made final two, I feared he would return. I cannot measure the Tory membership’s insanity from a desk. Six years after the Brexit vote, Tories tend to magical thinking: They must, because the reality of what they have done is too awful to contemplate, and Johnson is the high priest of their cult. His return to power would have depended on the extent of their denial and nothing more.

But then, on Sunday night, Johnson pulled out of the race he had yet to formally admit he was contesting. He said he was bowing out for the unity of the party, but he didn’t have the votes — for Johnson, there is no unity under others. He failed, not passively but actively. His journey back across the Atlantic seems pitiful now, and perhaps his hold on the country is finally over: He’ll follow Truss, another politician he ruined, into history.

On Monday there will likely be a Sunak coronation, but due to the chaos we have allowed Johnson to inflict on the British polity, the new prime minister will move into 10 Downing Street with almost no debate about what he’ll do when he gets there. Whatever transpires, the Tory Party is in ruins and the next election is lost: 12 years in, facing the calamities of the Brexit they delivered, still in hock to fantasists, they are factional, raging, and adrift. A second Johnson premiership would have hastened their destruction. He would have loved it.

Update: Mordaunt dropped out on Monday, so Rishi Sunak will be the next prime minister.

This post has been updated to reflect Boris Johnson’s departure from the leadership race.

The Bonfire of the Tories