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What should Boris Johnson do next? As little as possible

The ex-PM is like a tired movie trope: the battered, near-dead villain who rises one last time to wreak more havoc. Now it’s time to lower the curtain on this horror show

Boris Johnson. Photo: PA

In the end, he was not so much the Comeback Kid, as the Comeback Kidder. And as ever the joke was on everyone else. 

Boris Johnson’s economy-class dash home from the Dominican Republic – where the world’s most work-shy politician was having his third holiday in as many months after plunging the country into a chaotic spiral that ended with Liz Truss in power – created the kind of breathless media stir the disgraced and disgraceful former prime minister lives for. 

How he must have chortled when Conservative MP Sir James Duddridge, or Dudders as he’s known in the parallel universe where these people live, tweeted: “I hope you enjoyed your holiday boss. Time to come back. Few issues at the office that need addressing. #bringbackboris”

What jolly larks, Johnson must’ve thought. Once more into the fray, old boy. Giddy-up and tally-ho. 

And although, this time, Johnson has been forced to withdraw prematurely (insert your own joke here), the idea that this “humiliation” will see the oh-so-carefully-crumpled man-child slink off to think humbly on his sins, is just not realistic.

The clue was in Johnson’s typically remorseless statement on Sunday. A classic of the whiny, it’s-not-me-it’s-you genre: 

“I believe I am well placed to deliver a Conservative victory in 2024 – and tonight I can confirm that I have cleared the very high hurdle of 102 nominations … But in the course of the last days I have sadly come to the conclusion that this would simply not be the right thing to do. You can’t govern effectively unless you have a united party in parliament … I believe I have much to offer but I am afraid that this is simply not the right time.”

The short statement was speckled with references to “I” and a single reference to “the economic pressures faced by families across the country”. Presumably those families silly enough not to organise a lovely autumn break for themselves in the Caribbean. It is a measure of the man that it doesn’t even really matter whether he was lying about how much support he had. We expect him to lie. It is priced in, you might say. 

Dudders was blindsided, as anyone with such a name must surely be doomed to be: “Well that was unexpected. Off to bed!” he tweeted. 

A person working for one of Johnson’s backers gave vent to their disappointment in slightly more colourful language, according to Politico’s London Playbook: “If I f***ing see him, he better hope he’s got a quick flight back to the Dominican Republic. What a complete and utter f***ing s*** to march people up like this and say to people ‘oh yeah, it’s definitely happening,’” 

The thing is Johnson clearly doesn’t care, and the man-who-would-be-king will never stop creating chaos. Why should he? After all, he is the Special One. Nay, he is the Only One. He has the Midas touch when it comes to elections. Or so the myth-makers would have us believe. 

The truth is that Johnson is the dilettante poster-boy for a political opportunism that prizes personal ambition and advancement above all else. One could argue that some degree of personal ambition is needed in all political systems, but in British politics today, it is no longer a strategy or a play: it is the whole game. 

And this is why, for the sake of the country, we must hope that the parliamentary privileges committee makes rapid and substantive progress in its investigation into claims that Johnson misled the Commons. In the coming weeks,  the seven-strong committee of MPs – led by Harriet Harman – will begin to hear oral evidence from witnesses.

If Johnson is found guilty of misleading parliament, he could be suspended from the House of Commons, and that could trigger a recall petition and a by-election in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip seat.

That would be a good thing. Because the era of consequence-free mendacious politics personified by Johnson must end. It has already given us the undeliverable fantasy of a cost-free-benefits-heavy Brexit and most recently, Liz Truss’ Kami-Kwasi mini-budget that sought to foist that “no-consequence” doctrine onto the financial markets, with disastrous results. 

Much has been made of Johnson’s reference in his September farewell speech to the Roman military leader Cincinnatus, who came back from retirement (“laid down his plough”) to save his state from attack. Commentators saw within that reference a coded promise from the king of bluster that he would be back. But Cincinnatus was also known to oppose the rights of the common citizens; he was, in fact, an enemy of the people. 

Johnson’s unwavering devotion to his own advancement also makes him an enemy of the common man. Where was his thought for the good citizens of Britannia when he was sunning himself in Slovenia, or Greece or the Dominican Republic? Where was his compassion when he partied in Downing Street as people watched their loved ones die on iPad screens? Where was his defense of the common law when he tried to prorogue parliament to get his own way?

With inflation soaring, fuel prices rocketing higher, interest rates rising and growth and trade slowing, Britain needs principled politicians who are rigorous, thoughtful, and clever. There is little space for a moral vacuum widely acknowledged even by friends to have no grasp for details, and no desire to try to learn them. 

Johnson remains dangerous though. There can be little doubt that this elite idler would fancy the idea of allowing his arch enemy Rishi Sunak – if he wins the Tory leadership – to pick up the pieces of the economic crisis caused in no small part by Johnson’s machinations to push Truss into No. 10.

Will Johnson fancy himself in the role of white knight riding to the Tories’ rescue ahead of the next election after Sunak has tried to do the heavy lifting on the economy? Of course. Will some MPs support him? Of course they will, especially if they think their own seats are in danger under anyone else. Might the Tories win under Johnson? Anything is possible in two years despite the incredible lead the opposition Labour Party has now. One thing is for sure: if that happens, we will all lose.

Johnson’s malign influence has already had an effect on this leadership election: by threatening to stand, he enraged millions of Britons, drawing their anger to his person to the detriment of legitimate calls for a general election. When news of his withdrawal broke, we all breathed a sigh of relief, and forgot that we hadn’t wanted another Tory leader to be “anointed” at all. Johnson as disruptor strikes again. 

Like Glenn Close/Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction, Johnson will not go quietly and he will not go willingly. But go he must, because the UK should never again be held hostage to the overweening vanity of such a charmless man.

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