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Boris Johnson, a sorry excuse for a man

Some Tory MPs still dream of Boris Johnson returning as PM. After his Covid inquiry appearance, are they mad?

Despite three chaotic years in No 10 and innumerable lies and gaffes, a cabal of Tory MPs are intent on returning Boris Johnson to power. Photo: Charles McQuillan/Getty

Last weekend, adding a new melting clock to our increasingly surreal politics, the Mail on Sunday reported that a group of Tory MPs were intent on bringing Boris Johnson back as prime minister.

The methods by which he might be returned to power were suitably Johnsonian in their ridiculousness – a loyalist in a safe seat stepping aside to let him return to the Commons, then a vote of no confidence in Rishi Sunak and a leadership contest in which all the MPs who abandoned Johnson in 2022 suddenly voted for him again. Or, even wilder, a quick leadership contest from which Priti Patel emerged triumphant, trounced Keir Starmer at the election and then graciously stepped aside for her old boss.

The dream of a Boris return is one that’s confined solely to a small fringe of Tory MPs – the appetite even from the core Red Wall voter for a Johnson return could not be lower. When your correspondent sat in on a focus group of 2019 Tory voters (all of whom voted Leave) in the West Midlands town of Walsall, the prospect of Johnson’s return garnered a rapid and unanimous response. The group simply cried out “no!”.

Presumably those who seek to bring back arguably Britain’s worst-ever prime minister had slept through his three chaotic years in Downing Street. They must have missed his appearance in front of the Covid inquiry too.

Johnson has always been a man who has told on himself. In public he seems bumbling and distracted, relying on his charm to get by rather than ever mastering a brief.

His superficial affability has always proven easy to penetrate, disappearing rapidly once he’s asked a question he doesn’t like. But for a long time, most of the mainstream media told us not to believe what we saw on television.

“Boris”, we were told – it was always “Boris” back then – actually had a forensic eye for detail, was wildly ambitious, and was organised and together behind the scenes. His duties as mayor of London seemed to be sufficiently light that this scenario seemed just about plausible. In reality, a comparatively diligent and talented team of senior officials handled most of the real work, and Johnson was shepherded carefully around the public-facing and ceremonial stuff.

The Wizard of Oz act held, since the people doing the actual work stayed behind the curtain – as they had at the Spectator during Johnson’s editorship. It seemed plausible that he was at least capable of competently running an organisation of moderate size.

Any remnant of that thought was swept away by his testimony at the Covid inquiry. Johnson opened with an apparently unqualified apology for his mistakes, only to fail to list a single meaningful mistake he felt he made, and then to get angry when people took his words from the time at their face value. The best-case scenario he could paint was that he genuinely thought he was running a functional No 10 operation. He saw no issues in the days-long delays to urgent decisions caused by his own inability to grasp relatively simple concepts and his own unwillingness to put in the work to rectify those deficits.

Johnson saw no need to read the eight-to-10-page concise minutes of SAGE meetings. He saw no problem with the constant, sweary, belittling in written messages by senior officials and cabinet ministers of one another.

If No 10 was “toxic”, Johnson wasn’t aware of it, or if he was, he believed every prime minister’s No 10 operated in that manner. His evidence was barely coherent on its own terms, at best waffle that filled the time, but more frequently just contradictory. Did Johnson know the atmosphere was toxic or not? If he didn’t, why did he go on to say he thought it was a good thing, for allowing disagreement?

Johnson came across as a PM who – to adapt a phrase used by Jeremy Corbyn when he was pictured leaving a wreath for members of a terror group – was present in No 10, but not involved. The business of government happened around him and often despite him. Many of us will have drawn our own conclusions as to what all of this meant for Covid, but there will be an official verdict on that from the inquiry. Lady Hallett won’t, however, get a chance to reflect on what that means for how the country was run under Johnson.

Several people giving evidence to the Covid inquiry complained of Dominic Cummings acting as if he spoke with the voice of the prime minister, or even outranked him. But it might be worth having a degree of sympathy for Cummings here.

The whole purpose of the prime minister is to be where the buck stops, or to be the person who makes the decision and clears the logjam. When ministers and departments can’t solve an issue on their own, it’s No 10’s job to step in. When No 10 needs a bigger gun for the most difficult decisions, that’s what the PM is there for.

Our system simply doesn’t work if the prime minister just shrugs off that responsibility – or if he isn’t up to it. Johnson’s time in No 10 was a tumultuous one, dealing with the self-inflicted crisis of a needlessly acrimonious Brexit and then the global crisis of Covid, itself made worse by endless self-inflicted scandals caused by a mixture of ignoring the rules and lying about it.

It is now impossible to avoid the conclusion that just when an active, engaged prime minister was essential, Boris Johnson was there in body but not in spirit. Johnson was the glove-puppet PM, parroting the stance he had been convinced of by his most recent puppeteer adviser.

The team that put Johnson into No 10 is now happy to say how unfit he was for the office. It is time for them to add the missing second sentence, and to say that they are sorry – and to mean it. And, naturally, to do whatever they can to prevent Boris Johnson ever becoming prime minister again.

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