In Samuel Beckett’s play Endgame the dominant character Hamm asks “What’s happening, what’s happening?” and his servant Clov replies: “Something is taking its course”. The end of Boris Johnson’s ignominious tenure as British prime minister has been taking its course for some time – until this week, when a critical mass of Conservative ministers and MPs finally accepted what everyone else had long ago recognised: that Johnson was unfit for office.
After the cascade of resignations from the government over his deceptions, untrustworthiness and misjudgments, it was clear that this was his endgame. Sajiv Javid, who resigned as secretary of state for health on Tuesday over Johnson’s handling of the groping allegations involving the deputy chief whip, yesterday told the House of Commons he faced a conflict between his loyalty to the prime minister and his growing conviction that Johnson lacked the trust and integrity required to lead the government.
He concluded that the problem started at the top and it was time for Johnson to go. Rishi Sunak, the other major cabinet member to resign that day, said the differences between him as finance minister and Johnson, over tax cuts and state spending, added a crucial policy dimension to the Conservatives’ leadership crisis. These two main themes are echoed in yesterday’s departure letters from other government figures.
When their power is so seriously threatened British Conservatives have always proved capable of acting rapidly and decisively. Many Johnson loyalists concluded their seats were threatened by public disgust over the succession of scandals through which the prime minister had ducked, weaved and misled to avoid responsibility – despite his popularity as the man who delivered Brexit and promises to level up deep inequalities between the north and south of England.
Coming days will show whether Johnson can hold together the coalition of remaining cabinet loyalists and believers in his winning talents to stave off the immediate threat. Projecting that forward into an autumn of deteriorating living standards looks less and less possible, given the party forces ranged against him. The crisis of trust that finished Boris Johnson is external just as much as internal to the UK’s politics.
His conduct of Brexit negotiations and policies with the European Union and Ireland, in which he has continuously shifted position, demanded what he knows is not on offer and betrayed previous allies, has led to an unprecedented and deep-seated collapse of reciprocal relations with Brussels and Dublin. That has involved him in a strategic reliance on the hardest Brexiteers in his party, driven too by his need of their support for him as leader. The conclusion that normal business is not possible with Johnson’s government is now shared by so many of its own MPs that it is time for him to go.