Boris: The Last Straw

“He’s finished. There’s no way he will survive this,” said Lord Heseltine, the grand old man of Britain’s ruling Conservative Party. He was talking about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s latest self-inflicted wound, and he’s an expert in such matters: it was Heseltine who brought down that other Conservative hero, Margaret Thatcher.

Two of the most senior ministers in Johnson’s cabinet, Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister) Rishi Sunak and health minister Sajid Javid, resigned on Tuesday afternoon on hearing Johnson’s latest lies. So have a dozen other more junior ministers.

Javid’s resignation letter was particularly brutal: “I can no longer, in good conscience, continue serving in this Government… The tone you set as leader, and the values you represent, reflect on your colleagues, your party, and ultimately the country… This situation will not change under your leadership—and you have therefore lost my confidence.”

A month ago, I wrote that “Johnson will be gone within the year.” I was wrong: he will probably be gone within the month, and what will finally bring him down is not the economy, or Brexit, or any of his other failures to perform as advertised. It is the incessant, instinctive, stupid lies.

The last straw was Johnson’s denial that he had knowingly appointed a political ally and alleged sex offender, Chris Pincher, to a series of senior government jobs despite being warned against it by other Conservative members of parliament.

Since 2017, Pincher has been repeatedly accused of physically molesting younger men, including Conservative members of parliament, but no action was taken against him and Johnson ignored the warnings.

After he made Pincher deputy chief whip in parliament in February, however, further complaints about Pincher’s behaviour were made—and Johnson immediately said he had never been warned about him. It was a typical Johnson lie, heedless of the fact that the people who actually had warned him were bound to speak up. And it turned out to be the last straw.

On Tuesday, a former senior civil servant said he had personally warned Johnson about appointing Pincher. Suddenly, in a snap YouGov opinion poll on Tuesday evening, 69 per cent of Britons were saying he should resign. Only 18 per cent thought he should stay in office.

Even a majority of the people who voted Conservative in the last election thought Johnson should resign at once. He survived a confidence vote by his own Conservative MPs last month, but 41 per cent of them voted to depose him as party leader (and therefore prime minister). They’ll be back at it again shortly, and this time they may succeed.

The rules of the 1922 Committee, all the Conservative MPs in solemn conclave, say that if the leader survives a leadership challenge, there cannot be another one for a year. But there will be an election for the executive of the Committee next week, and a new executive can change that rule if they wish. They probably will.

Johnson may have to be dragged out of Number 10 Downing Street kicking and screaming, but he is on his way out—so now it’s time to be charitable. When most people lie, they first do a swift mental calculation about whether it will work, because being caught out in a lie is generally worse than the cost of telling the truth.

Johnson doesn’t do that, or at least he doesn’t do it very well. He’s not even daunted by the fact that other people will know from personal experience that he is lying. In Chico Marx’s deathless words, “Who ya gonna believe? Me or your own eyes.”

This is the behaviour of a sociopath (or perhaps a psychopath—the words are used interchangeably in popular discourse). It refers to people who are usually male, intelligent and charming. They have serial relations with women and leave many children behind. They are solipsistic and manipulative—and frequent, persuasive liars.

Johnson ticks every box except one. He lies frequently, and he clearly has the sociopath’s ability to sincerely believe his own lie as soon as he says it. But his lies often fall apart within days, hours or even moments of being uttered; he just doesn’t bother to calculate the probability that they will be believed. He is an incompetent liar.

That, more than any deed or misdeed, is what is now bringing him low. Even Conservative voters are sick of the lies, but he really can’t help it. So there’s no point in blaming him—but they really shouldn’t have voted for him, and now they understand that.

Most of Johnson’s remaining cabinet colleagues are just trying to figure out the best time to jump ship, and Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen had a word of advice for them all. “Those who sit on their hands now (and stay in Johnson’s cabinet any longer) can rule themselves out for the coming leadership contest.”