I have just returned to Canada from London — and the dramatic recent political developments over there require comment that I’m afraid must reduce the usual range of subjects in a diary. As someone who has known Boris Johnson for thirty years and has had the privilege of assisting him slightly in both his journalistic and political occupations, I can only feel deep sadness for him, for the Conservative Party and for the United Kingdom at the ludicrous and shameful events of last month. While Boris must be assumed to be largely responsible for his own fate,...
I have just returned to Canada from London — and the dramatic recent political developments over there require comment that I’m afraid must reduce the usual range of subjects in a diary. As someone who has known Boris Johnson for thirty years and has had the privilege of assisting him slightly in both his journalistic and political occupations, I can only feel deep sadness for him, for the Conservative Party and for the United Kingdom at the ludicrous and shameful events of last month. While Boris must be assumed to be largely responsible for his own fate, the spectacle of scores of his colleagues whom he had honored with government positions tweeting their way self-righteously out of office in a Gadarene surge was disgusting. They rivaled each other in implausible unctuousness as they fled out the backdoor and into the tall grass in a chorus of nauseating pieties about “integrity.” Despite Boris Johnson’s frequently unserious approach to political leadership, the antics of those who betrayed him had some of the character of Cassius rushing out of the Senate with a bloody dagger in each hand, demanding that spectators of an adjacent sporting match rejoice with him in his and his co-conspirators’ assassination of Rome’s rightful leader. The execrable conduct of almost all the political press reminded us all how unfathomably contemptible the British national media are when a lynching is afoot. The palpable joy of Boris’s former fellow scribblers was especially odious.
The triggering incident in the anti-Boris coup was ridiculous and the frenzied rush to evict the leader was completely unnecessary, even by the nastiest and most cynical traditions of the British Conservative Party. After one chancellor resigned, his replacement manfully sat beside the prime minister for parliamentary questions a few hours after his appointment — and then publicly invited the prime minister to resign for reasons of suddenly unacceptable turpitude. The very job lot of those who chiefly betrayed Boris Johnson will now presumably supply from among their own number the ninth leader the Conservatives will have had in the thirty-two years since Margaret Thatcher was booted out for acting on reservations about the European Union that have now been ratified by the whole nation.
As his old boss, I can confirm that Boris was sometimes an erratic and even duplicitous employee. But he was successful as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph and as editor of The Spectator. I have always looked back upon those days with gratitude for his originality and effervescence — and for the great contribution that he made to our publications. The government will have to pull itself together after this reenactment of Lord of the Flies and will not soon or easily recover credibility. It will take some time for the world to be reassured that the UK remains a model of self-government and is not, in its post-EU vocation, emulating the French Fourth Republic.
The last time a British Conservative leader retired entirely voluntarily and in good political and physical health was Stanley Baldwin in 1937; that was eighty-five years and sixteen leaders ago. The impasse that followed the Brexit vote was the greatest constitutional challenge Britain has faced since the American Revolution, if not the English Civil War. Boris Johnson was elevated to the headship of a moribund Conservative Party, led it to a convincing electoral victory and sliced the Brexit Gordian knot. After an uneven start, he also led the country capably out of the greatest public health crisis in at least a century and responded with exemplary distinction to the greatest military crisis in Europe since World War Two. While he does have himself to blame for much of what has happened, he has been laid low in a cowardly act of vengeance by the Remainers, assisted by his party’s most cynical careerists. He was often an effective party leader and prime minister and remains a relatively young man with a sizable body of support and the time to rebuild his career. I wish him every happiness and success in all the days ahead.
Despite the political upheaval, I’m delighted to report that I have never known London to be so lively, filled with interesting people from all over the world and spontaneous and upbeat as it has been these last few weeks. And despite extensive unavoidable absences over the last twenty years, I have always considered myself at least a part-time London resident throughout that period, never more avidly than now. It is one of the great pleasures of what I suppose must now be considered my golden years to have retained the friendship of so many inexhaustibly hospitable and endlessly interesting Londoners. Summer in Canada is always magnificent, but I can’t wait to return.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s August 2022 World edition.