The Tories woke this morning to survey the wreckage in their own press, where they find the state of their party and its leader as trashed as No 10’s garden was reported to be after that 20 May bash.
The few stalwarts praising the prime minister’s non-remorse today will be of small comfort to him, given their ranks include Ann Widdecombe and Patrick O’Flynn of the Express, while another of their ilk, the Telegraph’s Allison Pearson, has jumped ship altogether. “Never again will these idiots take us for fools,” she writes.
However passionately some editors have backed Boris Johnson as their Brexit champion, even they realise that whatever outrageous untruths they have sold their readers in the past, there is a limit to how far they dare take them for fools. They know their readers balk at Johnson expecting us to believe he thought a party with booze, crisps and sausage rolls was a work event. The rage and pain of bereaved families gets full throttle across their pages because editors know that’s how their readers feel: each one of them remembers the emotional deprivations of their own lockdown. Editors dare not say it’s absurd that a 25-minute appearance at a boring office party should bring down a prime minister: they know this is personal to all of us.
They don’t yet call for his head on a platter, but warn that’s where his blond mop will be if he doesn’t do whatever list of things they want: get a grip, cut tax, use Brexit to deregulate everything, abolish all Covid rules and so on. Like the party’s MPs, the Tory press weighs up the pros and cons of keeping Johnson, but the mood is tipping perilously against him.
The jaw-dropping duplicity of the rightwing press matches the Tory MPs in their comically sudden discovery that Johnson is a rule-breaking sociopath. Who knew? Here’s the Mail with great acres of space given over to his “litany of lies” over all the years of his life, reprising his every (well-known) public and private disgrace. Well, wow!
Watch the scramble as everyone tries to dissociate themselves from everything they always knew in the mealy-mouthed and long-delayed tweets of half-hearted support from his ministers. But Johnson was never the problem. He was only the symptom of what had become of the Conservative world that selected and boosted him. This is what the political poison of Brexit did to them, as the old party morphed into Ukip. A Tory Rip Van Winkle waking from decades of sleep to look round that cabinet table now would be aghast.
An extraordinary, pinch-yourself moment came last night on Newsnight with the bizarre spectacle of Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the house (Rip would be agape), telling Kirsty Wark that the leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross, was only “a lightweight figure”. Ross calling for Johnson to resign is backed by the great majority of his Tory MSPs, facing May’s elections with the Westminster cabinet anathema north of the border. Since the Ukip take-over, the Conservatives stopped being the unionist party, cavalierly throwing the Scots and the Northern Irish under the wheels of their Brexit bus.
This is save-our-skins time for each Tory MP facing local Labour and Liberal Democrat leaflets listing which sins they have voted for. Rees-Mogg may reckon no one but Johnson would give him a job. Rishi Sunak vanishing into deepest Devon, cancelling local press interviews yesterday, ranks with Johnson’s attempt to escape journalists by hiding in a fridge during the last election campaign. It may show Sunak’s political greenness that his disloyalty marked him down, splashed over a Tory press inclined to prefer Liz Truss. The Mail gives her a lovely story of her own today: “Liz: Let’s unleash the true potential of Brexit.”
How little this ship of fools has learned from their last disastrous leadership selections. Brexit still boils their blood, though it no longer ranks as highly among voters, who are now more concerned with the pandemic and the economy. Johnson’s further plunges in ratings and a 10-point lead for Labour may concentrate their minds; Sunak’s polling has plummeted below zero, too – with his April cost-of-living crunch still to come.
The Teflon is permanently scratched off the prime minister, leaving a pan where everything now sticks. Labour hopes he stays in the job for the next election, as Wes Streeting told Newsnight. He described Johnson as “unfit to govern” and called for his resignation, despite saying it was in Labour’s political interests for him to stay.
Indeed, a damaged, untrusted and now ridiculed opponent could in theory be a better prospect than the Tory party yet again remodelling itself with a new leader. But a fresh start isn’t in them. Tory MPs and members are destined by their Ukip DNA to select one of their own kind. They are no wiser than they were when they made the disgracefully unpatriotic decision to foist a lying, cheating, self-obsessed scoundrel on the country, knowing his every fault and his full unfitness for office. They are most to blame.