What took them so long? The chancellor and the health secretary have gone. Others may have jumped before the ink is dry on this, kicking themselves for not taking the lead as this cabinet of accomplices finally calculates that loyalty is doing their careers more harm than good. Late, too late, they conclude that protecting Big Dog for one more catastrophic Today programme interview will finish off their chances for good.
Are these the end of days for the prime minister? The party may yet need to prise his fingers off the cliff-face before he crashes to the Tarpeian rock. Health secretary Sajid Javid was first off the mark, so chancellor Rishi Sunak was pipped to the post by a few minutes. Javid writes that the country needs a “strong and principled Conservative party”. Yes indeed, but the country needed this through every scandal that has engulfed Boris Johnson.
Sunak echoed those words with an equally empty sentiment: “The public rightly expect government to be conducted properly, competently and seriously.” Yes indeed, but the country needed that before the Conservatives knowingly selected the most unfit man in their clan to lead them.
Their pious words turn to ash when considering how many times every member of the cabinet, every slavish minister and every aspiring Conservative backbencher has defended the monstrously indefensible behaviour of Boris Johnson. They stuck it out through mendacity around law-breaking parties. They never flinched at gold wallpaper that was funded by a Tory donor at £840 a roll. Nor even at trying to leverage a £150,000 tree house. They voted for constitution-wrecking bills that gifted Johnson Henry VIII-style powers to wield statutory instruments by diktat, bypassing government time and again. They let him lie to the Queen about proroguing parliament. The word is he plans even now to create another 50 Tory peers.
Sunak wrote in his letter that he believes “the public are ready to hear the truth”. That’s a confession: it means they have all sat through a quantity of untruth-telling. It suggests the public already knows fundamental truths about their government. “Ready” the public has been for some time now.
The two ministers making “principled” resignations (and it seems likely that more will follow) have tolerated so much that it suggests political calculation, not moral principle, has prompted their resignations. Two catastrophic byelections and a revolt by 41 per cent of their backbenchers projected them on to this righteous path. Those are the backbenchers who will select the next leader, so heeding them is a career necessity – and the word from Westminster is that relatively few MPs are still standing by the man they put there to win them a 80-seat majority in 2019.
What was the last straw? When a former permanent secretary, Lord McDonald, at last broke the omertà of his tribe to step forward and say the prime minister was “wrong” to claim he had never been warned about Chris Pincher’s pinching tendencies, the game was up. The civil service may look back on the Johnson era with shame. It may become the moment it had to review blind obedience to law-breaking and blatant lying.
More truths may emerge in time, perhaps tales from within the Home Office, for example, where the home secretary was found guilty of bullying but whose ethics guardian resigned instead of her. Few will be surprised that Priti Patel will not be following the chancellor and health secretary – for where else would her future lie but clinging on until the very end of Johnson’s days? Dominic Raab and Liz Truss likewise are letting it be known they are staying “loyal”, as no doubt there are Conservative party members’ votes to be gleaned from obedience to the leader, come what may. And it’s no surprise that Nadine Dorries has tweeted she’s “100 per cent” backing Boris.
The manner and precise timing of Johnson’s departure seems to be the only question left. Very few expect him to fight the next election. The 1922 Committee could change the rules instantly overnight and hold another leadership vote, with all the signs that he would lose next time. Or they may wait for next week’s election of a new committee minded to change the rules to allow another attempt at defenestration within the year.
Who will inherit the gold wallpaper if Johnson is hoisted out? Not one of those who have sat silently acquiescent around the shamed cabinet table through all this turpitude, if “principles” are indeed back in vogue.
Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist. This article originally appeared in the Guardian.