With Hannibal Johnson safe in his job for now, the Tory party can carry on devouring itself | Marina Hyde


Ironically, the Conservative party seems to have been unable to engineer a leaving do for Boris Johnson. Last night’s unsuccessful leaderplasty leaves the government hideously disfigured but staggering on; and the prime minister the subject of headlines like “let me get on with the job”. Which, considering the circumstances that brought us here, is a little like Fred West pleading to be allowed to get on with finishing someone’s loft extension. The not-getting-on-with-the-job has been a significant part of the problem. (Please don’t think that’s today’s only serial killer reference: we shall be dealing later in the column with the one made in the prime minister’s defence by Tory MP Adam Holloway, during a particularly eye-catching Newsnight appearance.)

For now, a recap. Scores on the doors were 148 Conservative MPs voting no-confidence, with 211 opting to clean up after Big Dog yet again. For them, this is not rock bottom. Johnson’s supporters have dived down to the bottom of their equivalent of Trainspotting’s worst toilet in Scotland, and fished out the suppository. Or to put it a different way that still underscores the dependency, 211 of them chose last night to order another gram of Boris Johnson, rather than begin the painful yet ultimately unavoidable process of coming down from what can surely no longer be described as a high.

This morning, Johnson apparently told his cabinet “this is a government that delivers on what people in this country care about most”, which feels bold, considering that a poll yesterday indicated 60% of the country wanted him to sod off to a long, long Sartrean afterlife on the Hannibal lecture circuit. Johnson’s mission-aborting government is arguably the UK’s worst delivery service, making even Yodel and Hermes look as if they go the extra mile to serve. “We tried to deliver even one half-arsed policy but you were out.”

Today’s other official angle is that last night’s horror show allows the government to “draw a line” under leadership speculation, and to stop the Tory infighting. A reminder: things we’ve done fairly recently to stop Tory infighting include: having a referendum, having two general elections, and having no-confidence votes in both the past two leaders. How’s it working out for us, would you say? A significant number of the exhausted British public will feel they’ve worked harder on this relationship than their own marriages.

Still, Boris can change! He can make it work again with the voters! Settle an argument: who’s more likely to rekindle their relationship: Boris Johnson and the electorate, or Johnny Depp and Amber Heard? You’d think the latter would have a better shot at renewing their vows. Hard to look at last night’s numbers and not conclude the prime minister has been ambushed by consequences. The thing most likely to be rekindled is the dry brushwood beneath his stake.

But look, Johnson’s big new ideas are reportedly in the post, so do clamber back on to the old tenterhooks. Another new chief of staff? Return to the gold standard? Revival of shillings and farthings? His biggest big idea continues to be the threat of triggering article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol. Or, if you prefer, to get Brexit undone. It remains remarkable that some years into the experiment, we are no closer to discovering what, politically, Boris Johnson actually likes, other than being liked. A lifetime of hollowing himself out with narcissism and personal ambition seems to have meant that when he finally became prime minister, he had no idea what to do with the position, and even less interest in finding out. The course of a redemption arc for that type of character feels particularly unclear.

For us, the audience, the scene feels familiar. Here we go again: back to Tory Elsinore. It’s a place we’ve come to know only too well, where frequent five-act bloodlettings have yielded a steady parade of inadequate Fortinbrases. Who’s next? Hard to say at this point. Yesterday, the cabinet rat king remained intact, with no secretary of state finding the will or skill to detach itself from the fused mass of tails. Nothing is as hard fought as the competition to be the maddest liability defending Johnson. There was Jacob Rees-Mogg, obviously, who had his rose-tinted monocle firmly wedged in his eye socket when he suggested a majority of one would be enough for Johnson to declare his authority undimmed. There was Nadine Dorries, the missing link between the vegetable and mineral kingdoms, whose botched attack on Jeremy Hunt contrived to describe her own party’s earlier pandemic preparation as “wanting and inadequate”. There were the unnamed sources explaining “the PM’s weakness is he’s too nice to people”. There were the very unnamed sources who kept saying that Johnson was toying with calling a general election. Truly, the David Koresh move.

And last but not least there was Gravesham MP Adam Holloway, who was beamed on to Newsnight to declare of his boss: “This programme, that I’m on now, was showing pictures of him looking like Hannibal Lecter.” Challenged by presenter Mark Urban, Holloway produced an iPad with a screenshot. “I can show you right here,” he claimed. “You’ve got razor blades … Does that guy look like somebody who’s been given a birthday cake, or somebody who’s just been locked up for something at the Old Bailey?” Oh dear. Like the rest of the rational world, I couldn’t see the razor blades to which Mr Holloway was referring, but then, perhaps we will simply have to accept that comic beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The same programme was once accused of Photoshopping Jeremy Corbyn’s hat to make it look more Russian, so perhaps the sanest conclusion is that there is something very rotten in the state of Newsnight’s graphics department.

In any case, even an outraged comparison of Johnson with Lecter increasingly feels very unfair to the unconventional forensic psychiatrist. Lecter, of course, was rather more skilled at drawing things out than the prime minister, who – as of last night – has been bumped into the role played by the late Ray Liotta in Hannibal. You may recall the scene in which this useless and corrupt government official has been so skilfully drugged that Lecter is able to feed him mouthfuls of his own brain while he retains a form of consciousness. This will be Boris Johnson’s summer. We are all Clarice Starling now – tied to the chair at the other end of the table and forced to watch.