When the Prime Minister learned that a delegation of Cabinet rebels was waiting at No 10, he insisted on seeing them one by one. Just as they had the same message for him – that the game was over – he had the same words for them. “I won 14 million votes,” he said. “They were won by me, not by the Conservative Party. I have the mandate and the duty to complete the work. In other words: Tory MPs had no power, no right to take back what the public had given. It was a fundamental misunderstanding that ultimately destroyed his premiership.
Boris Johnson failed because he tried to impose a presidential model on a parliamentary democracy. He is not a creature of Westminster and has never built a tribe around himself. His job, he thought, was to win and rule: theirs to follow orders and spread the word. It is absolutely true that no one else would have won the majority of 80 seats and defeated Corbynism. Probably no one else would have delivered Brexit. He was the perfect revolutionary, upsetting conventions and breaking the deadlock. In Dominic Cummings, he had a ruthless and efficient chief of staff.
But like many revolutionary leaders, he struggled to govern after the battle was won. The command and control model that Cummings helped him build – with No 10 giving orders to a lying cabinet – was foreign to the Westminster system. Everything then depended on the quality of the decisions resulting from n°10: no brakes, no balances. Nobody to demand (for example) a proper assessment on whether the lockdown would cause more harm than good. When Cummings left, this quasi-dictatorial system had no dictator. Chaos ensued.
The big policies were rushed but not considered: the deportations from Rwanda and the lockdown last December were only narrowly averted by a cabinet revolt. “I’ve seen it up close: we’ve long deprived voters of their right to competent government,” said a former cabinet minister. I spoke to several loyalist ministers who wanted Johnson to succeed, all the way. But the Chris Pincher debacle — “like the Catholic Church moving a bad priest from place to place,” as one minister put it — left them disgusted. Especially when No 10’s denials were, as they suspected, false.
Other scandals are still expected. Johnson wants to tax steel imports in defiance of World Trade Organization rules, for example, something his Cabinet colleagues believe was done to win the votes of three Red Wall MPs in the latest confidence vote. They are appalled not just by the behind-the-scenes deals and legal breaches (and what that says about Britain’s global reputation), but what would come next. Under WTO rules, Britain would be vulnerable to retaliatory measures. Was this the purpose of Brexit? Be more protectionist than ever?
It was Nadhim Zahawi, the Chancellor, who told Johnson privately that Westminster was like a herd – and that herd was now running against him. “He wanted a fan club but needed a team,” says a Cabinet member. “He was Meghan for our house in Windsor: he came to try and play the celebrity role and didn’t realize it was all about service.”
The Conservatives, as a party, share the blame for this mess. They love power and tend to follow anyone who brings it – so they voted to increase National Insurance, in defiance of their manifesto promises. They should have revolted. Too many of them have accepted the lockdown and, to this day, ask too few questions about its damage. As Johnson’s big-state conservatism raised taxes to a 72-year high, backbench MPs pressured ministers to spend even more. The political dinner clubs popular in the 1980s – the Bow Group, the No Turning Back group – have no real equivalent today. Backbench MPs are more likely to form lobby groups for more pork spending.
Michael Gove taunted his fellow ministers for all this at his last Cabinet meeting: they were guilty, he said, of “fiscal nimbyism”. They wanted spending cuts to cut taxes, but not in their own department. And that’s the problem now. You can bet almost every leadership contestant will advocate lower taxes, but how do you fund that? Both Liz Truss and Nadhim Zahawi can offer to borrow money: a pretty easy answer. Suella Braverman could offer more solid examples: rethinking HS2, for example, or reducing green taxes associated with the net zero agenda.
There are important things to discuss in this leadership debate. Are culture wars real – and worth fighting? Why the hell are 5 million people receiving unemployment benefits during a labor shortage crisis? What does NHS reform look like and would anyone vote for? Where is that care home protection plan promised by Johnson? And if he doesn’t exist, would it be time to announce the news to the public? Will the Conservatives ever cut government spending? If not, why even pretend to be a low-tax party?
Now that Johnson has stepped down, Tories can finally stop moaning and move on to discussing what’s broken – and how to fix it. But will we see candidates able to speak clearly about the mess they find themselves in? Or will it be the usual conservative circular firing squad, where the winner is the random soul left standing? “It’s very easy to see that everything is going very wrong,” admits one of the rebels. Labor has long argued that it’s not just Boris: that the Conservatives, as a party, are out of ideas. Will it be the leadership race that will prove it?
Johnson had planned a big speech on Monday, where he would raise income tax thresholds and scrap a planned corporate tax hike – the kind of measures that Rishi Sunak was fiercely against, saying they would not could only be financed by borrowing. “We were 24 hours away from a Conservative government being in place,” one of Johnson’s last surviving allies told me. Although how prudent it is to make unfunded tax cuts is, of course, another question.
The best way to apologize for the chaos is to bring something resembling order – which is why this leadership race needs to end as quickly as possible. Once the final two candidates have been identified, party members should have a few weeks – not all summer – to choose a winner. The kind of chaos that a leadership race imposes is only justified if the party is fairly certain to have a significant number of better ideas. Now is the time to hear them.