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The Sisyphean Task of Keeping Boris Out of the Spotlight

Roar writer and Comment editor Fintan Hogan discusses the political future of former prime minister Boris Johnson.

He’s fond of the odd classical allusion, isn’t he? After 2 and a half years of worsening polling, 7 months of Partygate questions, 8 weeks of Tory leadership campaigning and 4 days of removal vans, Boris Johnson left office on Tuesday morning – in his usual bombastic style.

Rarely perturbed in his public manner, Johnson memorably resigned as Conservative leader on July 7 by announcing “them’s the breaks”. Even in his deathbed Commons speech, Johnson suggested that this “probably certainly” would be his last time at the dispatch box, and it was “mission largely accomplished – for now!” He left PMQs for the last time on July 20 by declaring “hasta la vista, baby!” Literally, ‘see you later’.

These insinuations left little uncertain about his unquenched desire for high office. Then, Liz Truss applauded from just three seats to his left. Now, she has reason to fear a backbench and backseat driver.

Johnson’s eventual demise was somewhat predictable. He was clearly ill-suited to high political office, with a poor eye for detail and blustering façade that would inevitably begin to irritate the famously dour British public.

By January, Partygate revelations seemed the beginning of the end for the Johnson premiership. People were disillusioned and angry with his fragrant disregard for public health messaging, and the Conservative party has a regicidal streak. It was time, as I put it, to “watch for rats and sinking ships.” And the vessel did soon begin to creak. By June, a no confidence vote had been called and survived. It seemed that the greased piglet had skirted yet another fire. But – always one for animal metaphors – I suggested that “vultures” in the Tory party were still circling.

In referencing my own work, I do not mean in the slightest to imply that I have or had a crystal ball. I mean to say that even I – a naïve and ignorant first year student – could read the writing on the wall. So, we must presume that Johnson and his aides could feel the winds of change as well as I could. While he may have been in denial in public, we are talking about a canny and experienced political operator. He will have been scheming.

There is little indication that Johnson is now prepared to “go gentle into that good night”. Never one to shirk the spotlight, he is already alluding to a new chapter in his political career. Comparing himself to a “booster rocket” that has propelled the Truss government into power, he appears determined to make quite the impact on his return to earth.

His final epic metaphor was of himself as Cincinnatus ‘returning to the plough’, a legend that he first cast himself into as early as 2009. Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus willingly abdicated his position as near-absolute ruler of Rome in order to return to a sanguine agricultural life after he saved the Republic from invasion. So far, so good. The metaphor seems stretched (Johnson did not resign willingly), but that’s just political spin.

Yet according to legend, good Cincinnatus was called upon again later in life to make a grand return to power. He was a vehement opponent of the lower-class plebian movement, and “completely opposed the rights of the poor and unprivileged.” So, no swift adieu: re-enter Boris.

 

All signs point to Johnson’s departure being neither complete nor permanent. His adoration of Winston Churchill further strengthens this case, with the former prime minister doing everything he could to style himself after the wartime leader. Down to his “self-assurance redeemed from arrogance only by a kind of boyish charm”, his idol laid down the footprints that he sees himself following still now. Indeed, Churchill surprisingly lost the 1945 general election and was ousted from power – before making a triumphant return in 1951. Everything about Johnson’s manner and language implies that he too sees himself as down, but not out.

And indeed, he is in the best position to do so of any prime ministerial resignee of our generation. While May was crippled by her poor electability, Cameron by the Brexit referendum defeat and Blair by his long tenure, Johnson has been dethroned by the most fickle of powers – public opinion. While anger at Partygate and lying to parliament is pertinent now, we must accept that this inhibition will wane over time as previous issues did not. They may not quite be tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, but they are likely to be footnotes in history books.

And so now Johnson sees a tentative and winding path back to the throne, not dissimilar to the one that Trump still threatens to take in 2024. And his successor is ideal.

Liz Truss enters Number 10 with a mandate barely worth the name. She received the backing of only 32% of Tory MPs in the final round of voting on July 20. Johnson won 51% in 2019, and Theresa May 61% in 2016. Truss was backed by only 57% of Conservative party members, when Johnson won 66%. Johnson even won the support of 211 MPs as recently as the vote of no confidence in July – 98 more than Truss achieved from the parliamentary party. This is still Johnson’s party, even if there are enough Tory pragmatists to recognise that it’s not Johnson’s country anymore.

Not only has she a paper-thin majority, but her cabinet has been emptied of Rishi Sunak supporters, the only other pre-eminent force within the party. There has been no ‘bringing in the beast’ by appointing Sunak or his allies. Keep your friends close, and your enemies on the back bench.

She is thus the Johnson continuity candidate. While no longer the face of the operation, many on the inside are sympathetic to his plight. Truss herself was a consistent cabinet member throughout Johnson reshuffles and was proudly ‘loyal to Boris’ when others resigned. Her own cabinet has been purged of ‘dissidents’ from the Truss cause (many of whom also resigned from the Johnson government). Dissenting voices have been pushed out of the media spotlight. Far from drawing a clear break from his administration, she even thanked Johnson personally in her acceptance speech. The king is dead; long live the king.

And Mr Johnson will turn the sunset of his premiership into the limelight once again. According to The Times, he is being advised by two camps: either to retire from public life and cash in on his publicity or to make a triumphant return.

But fuelled by Churchillian visions of the returning hero and never one for thoughtful introspection (see ‘man stuck on zipline waving flags’), he will likely indulge in speaking tours, newspaper columns and public debate. His backbench antics helped bring down both of his prime ministerial predecessors, and ex-PMs are often called upon for comment in the chamber. Should he return with gusto to the pen, he will be paid not by the word but by the scandal. There is little incentive for him to keep quiet, even if one believes that he could do so. The Tory front bench still makes for an uncomfortable seat.

This is a man with a reputation for rebellion, an enviable platform and a self-aggrandising vision of Boris Rex, centre stage. The more apt classical analogy is that of Sisyphus, as the task of keeping Johnson out of the public eye has proved impossible for the last decade. Let us hope that something profitable distracts him out of politics – or the boulder may crush us again.

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