There is a literary and cinematic device that usually signals the protagonist has entered a world that may look normal but is in fact slightly off. A clock might start moving backwards; a ball might be thrown in the air and keep rising, disappearing into the sky. The main character in Christopher Nolan’s Inception, for example, moves between reality and complex dream worlds. When he can no longer tell the difference between the two, he uses a small silver spinning top as a reality check. If it loses momentum and stops spinning, he is awake. If it continues to spin, he is asleep, lost in an uncontrollable nightmare.
Since news of No 10’s parties started being leaked to the press, many of us have become that anxious man, desperately waiting for the spinning top to slow down and topple over: for Boris Johnson to resign; for his party to finally boot him out; for some sign that we are not living in a world where the rules no longer apply. Every time speculation about the 54 letters required to trigger a no-confidence vote has intensified, or a senior Tory has broken cover and condemned Johnson, or a report has confirmed partying during lockdown and “failures of leadership”, the spinning top has slowed, as it has seemed certain that not another day could pass with Johnson still in office.
But it’s been weeks now. To be precise, it’s been more than two months since the first news broke of Johnson attending a party. Since then, there have been reports of the prime minister crying and broken, apologising to people in the halls of Downing Street like a drunk punter in a nightclub toilet after a bad breakup. Anonymous sources and their eager handlers brought us such final pronouncements as “it’s over”, “the letters will be in by 5pm”, describing Johnson as “downcast and defeated”. All this may not have necessarily implied a swift departure, but what it certainly didn’t suggest was that, only days later, this same man would be accusing the opposition leader of failing to prosecute Jimmy Savile and implying the Labour frontbench took drugs.
The likelihood is that all these events amount to a slow bleed, rather than an immediate fall. Johnson’s renewed fight (if the reports that he was flagging are to be believed) is the frantic flailing of a man on the ropes. But it’s a hell of a slow bleed. Something always seems to stem it. A fortunately timed defection of one Tory MP to Labour snatched the no-confidence letters back. A Metropolitan police investigation, also well timed, filed down the teeth of Sue Gray’s report. A belligerent Vladimir Putin appeared to threaten (again, what timing!) an invasion of Ukraine. Yet there are only so many excuses one can make before one realises it’s not a series of last-minute lifesavers that have prevented Johnson’s departure; it’s the ecosystem that allows him to remain.
In this ecosystem, the norms that once tied action to consequence have been severed. For years now, the Conservative party has honed a political programme in which lying – and the styling-out of lies – is central to how the party runs business. From the false claims MPs made about the windfalls that Brexit would deliver to the NHS, to denying the reality of national PPE shortages, the guiding principle among Tory MPs has been to lie first and avoid questions later. If truly cornered, they switch to a strategy of attacking and undermining – judges, the media, human rights lawyers, the EU, the civil service, Tory party members themselves who don’t toe the line.
Johnson’s appointment as party leader was a victory for a 2016 vintage of politics that combined aggression and relentless dissimulation. And it has worked. With Johnson as its battering ram, the government has managed to make it through the highest Covid death toll in Europe, several corruption scandals and a barely scrutinised Brexit deal. To achieve this sort of licence, all the chips were put on one man with one style of leadership. But what happens when that style, that man, becomes the liability?
Well, you look for alternatives and you muster some moral courage to do the right thing. But Johnson and party impunity, both so diligently promoted over the past few years, mean it is nearly impossible to reverse course without blowing up the entire operation. And so what should have been a straightforward and swift matter of political principle that ended in Johnson’s resignation has become something else entirely. Kremlinology and political calculations fill the moral void as MPs and advisers try to figure out the cost to their own careers.
It’s no coincidence that the two most high-profile MPs to criticise Johnson – the failed Brexit secretary David Davis and the former prime minister Theresa May, whose Home Office was responsible for the Windrush scandal – have already cashed in their chips and absconded with their own legacies intact. In the meantime, Johnson gets what he wants, which is to live another day, then another, and another, as the rest mull over the question: how to restore gravity without bringing the entire party crashing down in the process? Who, apart from Johnson, can cheerfully bluster through the disasters of Brexit and pandemic mismanagement, and lie with such effortless conviction? If your product is a con, you need a conman.
This is why it is taking so long. This is why rejoicing in the latest harms to Johnson’s reputation feels more like a nervous, drawn-out affair than a relief. In theory, yes, there is a limit to what any politician can get away with in a democratic society. In theory, yes, what goes up must come down. But in practice, when an entire government has been built on fantasy and false promises, restoring the codes of reality is costly. It must be done slowly and carefully, as the party and modern conservatism steer away from Johnson and Brexit populism. But towards what? While they figure that out, Johnson remains, even as a dead man walking, and the silver top continues to spin.