Brexit was Johnson and Johnson was Brexit. Now that he has gone, Britain must think again

Martin Kettle

It is easy to overlook the fact that something larger is at stake amid the Conservative party’s midsummer mayhem. Something larger, for sure, than Boris Johnson’s petulance or Nadine Dorries’ attention-seeking. Something affecting us all, not just the Tory party. Something that underlies everything else about current British politics and will outlast the current excitement. That something is the future of Brexit.
Yes, Johnson’s latest self-centred lord-of-misrule melodrama is remarkable even by his own standards. Yes, Dorries’ latest career move, going postal in parliament, on the run from her own resignation, is providing a suitably disturbing coda to an already dauntingly disturbing political career. And, yes, Rishi Sunak’s laboriously constructed authority as prime minister is again under threat from the intemperate disloyalty that has become the default setting of a section of the Tory party. So, yes, much of this pantomime is indeed about Johnson’s desperation to remain at the centre of the stage – as those smirking outings with his dog each morning for the cameras confirm. Some of that may really be about trying to manoeuvre himself back into parliament in a safer seat at the general election, though his strategy has clearly not been thought through.
All of it also raises existential questions for the Conservatives, a party that was for so long the international paradigm for pragmatic adaptation in the cause of electoral success, even in the era of Margaret Thatcher. The question “What does the Conservative party now stand for?” is harder to answer these days. The Tory party Jenga tower sometimes feels just a brick away from collapse. Nevertheless, behind all of this stands Brexit itself. This crisis, in other words, goes beyond the short-term problems of the Sunak government and the struggle over the Tory party’s identity. The link between the events of the past week and Britain’s break with Europe is umbilical, because the cord that binds them is Johnson himself.
Part of this, but not all of it, is about the lies that were integral to both Brexit and Johnson’s fall. Lies about pandemic lockdown parties pushed Johnson from government and now from the Commons. But lies about Brexit were also the reason why he got into No 10 in the first place. His political banishment and humiliation for one set of lies ought to call into question his earlier political coronation for a different set. It was ever thus with Johnson. His departure is not a tale of an essentially decent and truth-telling man who ruined it all by lying. Johnson’s contempt for truth and rules is lifelong. His housemaster at Eton, Martin Hammond, famously nailed the problem many decades ago when he wrote: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” Telling the truth matters to you and me. It does not matter to Johnson. Johnson’s conduct in the pandemic and since receiving the draft of the privileges committee report is fully in line with that Eton report. Any other prime minister would have been scrupulously careful not to break the rules that his own government had imposed. Many would have erred on the side of caution and self-denial. None of that applies to Johnson because it would not have occurred to him that it should. He is the self-appointed exception, a sociopathic narcissist. He has departed because, in his view, he is infinitely more important than any precedent, or rule or institution.
But the same applies to his attitude to Brexit. He didn’t really have a strong view about whether to leave or remain. But he did have a strong view about which was best for Boris Johnson. Having made his choice, he said whatever came to hand in the campaign, whether it was true or wise, just as he had done in his journalism. A serious political leader – serious in the sense of according priority to national needs not the leader’s own advantage or gratification – would never have been so reckless. Later, he claimed to be the one who could get Brexit done, but that was another lie; these were mere words and this was a mere pose. He had no idea what would work or do damage and he didn’t care either. In their book, Johnson at 10, Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell distil Johnson’s career into three core traits: his charisma, his self-absorption and his selfishness. Their common thread is an absence of moral seriousness, reflected in the way he lived and ruled. “Causes, commitments, colleagues, as well as pledges, policies and partners were regarded as merely transitory and transactional,” they write. “Any could be jettisoned when they no longer served his interests or pleasure.” Events have confirmed the truth of that. European Union, parliament, Conservative party. Who really cares? Not Johnson. Johnson has now, it seems, walked away from party politics. Perhaps he has departed for ever. Perhaps he will return. A minority of Tories, an even smaller minority of voters and a handful of overmighty newspapers are still praying for another act. For the rest, Johnson leaves behind a damaged personal reputation, a damaged party, a damaged system of government, a damaged parliamentary democracy and a damaged country.
The political system on which Johnson attempted for so long to impose his personality and his lack of standards has, by and large, repulsed his assault. But it has taken losses in doing so, and a second assault cannot be ruled out. Leaders such as Johnson sometimes win and sometimes lose. But they always damage, and the damage must be repaired and must be guarded against in future. That is why, in an important sense, these past few days are fundamentally about Brexit. Until recently, Brexit had become a taboo. It felt inevitable that a generation would have to pass before it was politically possible for a new form of relationship to be constructed with the EU that would undo the harm of the vote in 2016. Economic struggles, the challenges of climate and migration, and the war in Ukraine all make the need for that rebuilding more pressing. A steady shift in public opinion towards closer cooperation, followed by Johnson’s fall, now opens the door to a much more determined re-engagement. That will not be easy. But the biggest lie that Johnson ever told, and the one that was most widely believed, was over Brexit. It has resulted in the largest piece of damage of the many he inflicted on the country. Johnson’s fall and unpopularity ought, therefore, to reopen Britain’s relationship with Europe. That is too big a question for this or any other future government to keep locked away in the too-difficult box. It is time, in other words, to take back control.