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The desperate, deranged Tories risk destroying themselves over Johnson

Deluded Conservatives have constructed an increasingly viral betrayal narrative in which Johnson was destroyed by a conspiracy led by Sunak

Are the knives really out for Boris? Image: The New European

At present, much energy is being expended investigating the revolutionary potential, for good or ill, of artificial intelligence. But we should not lose sight of the no-less-spectacular growth of that other great 21st-century phenomenon: carbon-based stupidity.

Imagine the world that will flicker into view of the first machine to achieve full consciousness and the questions with which its extraordinary algorithms will immediately be faced.

Why are these people still burning fossil fuels? Do they really think that Sam Smith is avant-garde? How can Donald Trump possibly be on course for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination? And why do so many Tories still want to bring back Boris Johnson?

It’s entirely possible, of course, that the first self-aware robot might just say “You have to be kidding” and shut itself down in despair. But not, I hope, before taking a crack at the Johnson Question.

Don’t forget: it is not yet nine months since the former PM left Downing Street. Yes, he is no longer in No 10. But he still seems to be everywhere else. And not just trousering millions for speaking engagements and his forthcoming memoirs.

In January, he was in Ukraine meeting his friend, president Volodymyr Zelensky. In March, he delivered an abrasive performance before the House of Commons privileges committee, which must soon decide whether he lied to parliament over breaches of Covid rules. Last Thursday, he had dinner with Trump at the latter’s golf club just outside Washington DC.

For most of us, this is just politics as gruesome showbusiness, the never-ending club tour of a jaded cabaret act who refuses to hang up his purple lamé jacket. But for Rishi Sunak, it all adds up to a clear and present danger.
It is bad enough that, with his general antics and forceful personality, Johnson sucks so much political oxygen out of the public square. Much worse for the PM is the betrayal narrative that is now hardening in the Tory movement, shackling him to a man he had hoped would be fading into the Conservative past. Instead, by his refusal to pipe down and go away, Johnson is imperilling his party’s very future.

Last week, the Times disclosed that Cabinet Office officials, having combed through his official diaries in preparation for the Covid inquiry, had referred a series of alleged new lockdown breaches by the former PM to the police. In a rational world, this would be nothing but bad news for Johnson.

Yet, in the deranged dystopia of Tory Town, it is being noisily presented by militant Borisians as evidence of foul play by Sunak and his gang of supposed impostors – especially Oliver Dowden, the deputy prime minister, whose resignation as party chairman in June last year did Johnson so much damage. This is the worst possible framing for the PM: the furious claim that the whole thing is somehow a witch-hunt, quietly encouraged by
No 10.

Does it matter? For more than 20 years, people have been assuring me that “Boris is finished”. And it may indeed be that a return to the top job holds less allure than it once did, now that he is finally raking in the kind of money to which he has always believed he is entitled.

Yet none of this means that Johnson wants to limit his options. And for a great many Tories, the manifest absurdity of such a comprehensively disgraced figure making a comeback is eclipsed by the intoxicating myth of a great man felled by lesser mortals, but still capable of saving his party from perdition.

As recently as October, eight cabinet members called for his return to Downing Street after Liz Truss’s disastrous nano-premiership. We know from Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 backbench committee, that Johnson had sufficient support from Conservative MPs to proceed to a run-off ballot of party members against Sunak. He chose not to go for it. But if you think that decision signalled his definitive retirement from frontline politics you haven’t been paying attention.

More to the point, there is a growing market in his increasingly desperate party for a simple solution to a huge electoral problem. As the disastrous Tory performance in the local elections showed, the Sunak Project has manifestly failed. Core inflation is now at its highest level since April 1992; the tax burden is at a 70-year peak. Mortgage holders are braced for further interest rate increases.

Floundering abjectly in the real world, many Conservatives are seeking solace in magical thinking. They have constructed an increasingly viral betrayal narrative, according to which Johnson was destroyed by a conspiracy led by Sunak and his supporters, in which the civil service, media and “liberal elite” were all complicit.

Like Mark Antony in Julius Caesar they deplore this supposed treachery by Rishi, the Tory Brutus, as “the most unkindest cut of all”. How convenient it is to forget that Johnson himself dragged the government into the ethical sewer with the Partygate scandal and many other travesties; that he was driven out not by shadowy plotters but by the very public resignation of no fewer than 57 of his own ministers.

At last month’s conference in Bournemouth of the Conservative Democratic Organisation – the unofficial “Bring Back Boris Coalition” – Priti Patel, the former home secretary, denounced those “who took down a vote-winning political giant who was on course to secure a record-breaking fifth consecutive general election win for our party”. Seriously?

On Sunday, Andrea Jenkyns, a former education minister and fanatical Johnsonian told Sky’s Trevor Phillips that her hero was the victim of orchestrated persecution. “If anything, I think Boris has been too trusting,” she said. Poor old Boris, eh?

He ought, of course, to be a political pariah. And yet, somehow, he haunts us still, a one-man exhibit of a political culture in poor shape. It is a parable of nostalgia at its corrosive, stupefying worst. It should be a cause for anxiety far beyond the seething stockade of the Conservative Party.

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