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Boris Johnson’s departure would mark end of revolutionary phase of Brexit

London Letter: Conservative MPs’ thoughts turning to PM’s potential successors

Amidst the bubble and hiss of plotting, counterplotting, smears and blackmail at Westminster, MPs' thoughts are beginning to turn to life after Boris Johnson. The prime minister's fate is not settled and he could yet survive Sue Gray's report into Downing Street parties next week and any confidence vote that might follow.

If he goes, much will remain unchanged because the Conservatives will still be in government, committed to Johnson's 2019 manifesto and with many of the same ministers around the cabinet table. Britain will remain outside the European Union and its position on the Northern Ireland protocol is unlikely to change significantly.

Johnson's departure would be a red letter day in recent British history, however, because it would mark the end of the revolutionary phase of Brexit. The hottest part of that phase ended with the exit from Downing Street of Dominic Cummings and his Vote Leave faction, but Johnson continues to embody much of its spirit.

Part of his appeal in the 2019 general election lay in his claim to be the guarantor that institutions and elites, elected or unelected, would not thwart the will of the people as directly expressed in the Brexit referendum. In common with populist leaders elsewhere, Johnson claimed for his government a unique democratic legitimacy that trumped constitutional checks and balances.

If parliament was refusing to co-operate with his plans to implement Brexit, it could be shut down – a move that was reversed when the supreme court ruled that it was unlawful. And if Johnson regretted parts of a treaty he agreed with the EU, he would refuse to implement them and admit cheerfully that he was breaking international law.

Volatility

This volatility of the means extended beyond Brexit to his handling of coronavirus, when his government ignored public procurement rules to hand contracts to Conservative donors and his attempts to nobble or circumvent enforcers of standards in public office. It is a similar instinct that led him into his current troubles, which centre on his apparent view that the rules he made for others did not apply to him.

The field of candidates to succeed Johnson is likely to be broad but none of the leading contenders shares his populist disdain for the norms that are so essential to the operation of Britain's uncodified constitution. The two frontrunners, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, both voted three times for Theresa May's Brexit deal and neither was ever part of the rebel group of MPs in the European Research Group.

Sunak backed Brexit in the 2016 referendum and believes that leaving the EU’s regulatory system creates opportunities for Britain in high-value sectors such as life sciences and artificial intelligence. Truss was a Remainer but she has embraced Brexit with gusto, talking up new trade deals as major negotiating triumphs even though most simply carried over arrangements Britain enjoyed with third countries when it was in the EU.

Among Conservatives, Sunak is perceived as a Thatcherite and Truss as a Reaganite, meaning that both want tax cuts but he believes in paying for them. Both are more conventional Conservatives than Johnson, suspicious of excessive state intervention and of the welfare state chauvinism that linked leaving the EU to more spending on public services.

Ten years ago Truss joined other future ministers Priti Patel, Dominic Raab and Kwasi Kwarteng in writing Britannia Unchained, which called for Britain to learn from other countries how to improve education, support business and achieve societal goals by promoting free markets. Notoriously, it describes the British as "the worst idlers in the world" and it is ideologically wild in places, but the book is outward-looking and celebrates long-term planning over quick policy fixes.

Pamphlets

Sunak has written pamphlets for the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange on how Conservatives should engage more effectively with Britain’s minority ethnic groups. As chancellor, he has pushed back against some of Johnson’s more profligate spending plans but he revised the Treasury’s green book for assessing public sector investment projects to make it easier to channel funds to poorer parts of the country.

Neither Sunak nor Truss have shown an enthusiasm for breaking rules or trampling over norms and both would be more conventional leaders than Johnson in the post-Trump western world. This is especially true of Sunak who, like Italy's prime minister Mario Draghi and numerous senior governmental figures in the United States and Europe, is an alumnus of Goldman Sachs.

A canonical text for those who study Johnson is his contribution to The Oxford Myth, a collection of essays edited by his sister Rachel. Writing about student politics, Johnson advised aspiring politicians to assemble “a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges” to advance his career in the belief that they were advancing their own.

Johnson has advanced the cause of the Conservative party since becoming its leader in 2019, reuniting the right of British politics to win an 80-seat parliamentary majority and healing the party’s internal split by getting Brexit done. If the party decides next week that he has served his purpose, Johnson will have time to reflect on who might have been the stooge all along.