Everyone thinks they have a formed idea of who Boris Johnson is. And yet, unlike most contemporary politicians, he has done little to control public perception of his moods or his own image. Unless going for a run in swimming trunks, a knit hat, and dress shoes is an eccentricity with a calculated purpose. Reconstructing the last agonizing hours as leader of the Conservative Party of the most universally known character in the current United Kingdom -Elizabeth II apart- requires delving into the multiple and scattered sources of the British media that have managed to scratch details and sensations of those hours to the most intimate circle of the prime minister.
The dramatic turn occurred, apparently, at six in the morning on Thursday. Johnson had already been awake for more than an hour. He had barely been able to fall asleep after a fast-paced and hyperactive day in which he became convinced that he could put up one last fight; that no one was going to kick him out of Downing Street without a fight. “If you are going to die, die fighting,” Johnson repeated to his faithful team, according to Andrew Pierce in the Daily Mail. It was the light of dawn that finally cleared her head.
The beginning of the end
The sudden resignation, on Tuesday, of two of the most important members of his Government produced a state of confusion in the conservative deputies, in the media and in Johnson himself. Was this another crisis that the prime minister would come out of? Or the starting gun of a deathblow? The Minister of Economy, Rishi Sunak, and the Minister of Health, Sajid Javid, resigned their positions within minutes of each other. The two reproached him in their letters for “lack of competence and seriousness”, and announced that they no longer trusted his leadership.
If at first Johnson, in a delusional state, convinced himself that the ministers’ challenge was an opportunity, the self-delusion was short-lived. By immediately appointing Nadhim Zahawi responsible for the Economy, until then in charge of Education, but with the prestige of having directed the successful vaccination program in the pandemic, and a reputation for neoliberalism, he thought that he would be the perfect accomplice for that tax cut. who demanded him in the party. He would no longer face Sunak, the zealous guardian of fiscal orthodoxy. And he could, in a new exercise of sleight of hand, divert attention from the crisis and take the initiative.
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When the gods want to destroy someone, they first blind him, then drive him mad. “Long after it has become obvious to everyone else that we are finished, we remain convinced that it is our duty to continue to cling to the privileges and perquisites of our positions”, the journalist Johnson had written in 2006 when the then prime minister, Tony Blair , was reluctant to admit his political end. History always repeats itself.
On Wednesday morning, Minister Michael Gove, one of the most astute and effective politicians on the British scene, took his second stab at Johnson. The first had been given to him in 2016, after the Brexit referendum, when at the last minute he derailed the campaign of his ally to take over the leadership of the Conservative Party. Loyal only to the victors, Gove made it clear to Johnson in a private meeting that he no longer had the support of his people, and that if he did not resign, he would at the end of the day.
Under that shadow he attended the control session of Parliament, to weather the bombastic and allegedly defiant tone that spends the opposition’s taunts and sarcasm in the hardest moments. The worst thing was listening —and then her face twisted— the speech of her ex-minister Javid. Just as devastating as the one that Geoffrey Howe pronounced against an already defeated Margaret Thatcher. “Walking the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months. And I will never risk losing my integrity,” said Javid. “The problem lies in the person who is at the head, who is not going to change, and who forces the rest of us to do so.”
A delegation of ministers, including surprisingly Zahawi, who aspires to lead the Conservative Party and had already begun his double game, was waiting for Johnson in Downing Street. Along with them, Graham Brady, the president of the 1922 Committee (the body that brings together deputies Tories without position in the Government, in charge of organizing the process of primaries and election of the new leader). They all carried the same message: the end had come. It was time to do the only worthy thing, and resign. The prime minister’s response was defiant: fourteen million voters had given him a mandate in December 2019 that was above the whims of the party. If they wanted him gone, they would have to kick him out. Then he phoned Gove and gave himself a little pleasure: he fired him, as a traitor, before the other dared to resign.
Indian dinner delivery
Meeting with a small group of faithful in the Margaret Thatcher Room in Downing Street – the same one where he received EL PAÍS for an interview, presided over by the portrait of the Iron Lady – Johnson ordered Indian food (curry vegetarian with lentils, bread naansamosas and popadom) and began looking for replacements for all the top officials (almost fifty) who had resigned throughout the day in a continuous cascade. He conveyed to his people the idea that it was still possible to face the battle. But earlier that afternoon she had heard her friend and ally Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, who had entered Downing Street through a side door so that no journalist would think that she was part of the conspiracy, that there was nothing to do. And Grant Shapps, the Minister of Transport, the man always glued to an Excel spreadsheet to count the Prime Minister’s friends and enemies, made it clear to him that, in the event of a new internal vote of no confidence in the parliamentary group, his defeat would be resounding.
Johnson had spoken that afternoon with the queen. Half an hour scheduled in advance, but which coincided with the heat of the crisis. The content of that conversation will never be known. Nor the one that same night between Johnson and his wife, friend and former adviser to the Conservative Party, Carrie Symonds.
But first thing in the morning, after a deep sleep and much thought, Johnson called Brady to tell him that he had reconsidered. He was going to announce his resignation that very morning. He spoke again with Elizabeth II. He was not obligated. He would continue as acting prime minister. He was not going to advance elections. But it was essential courtesy.
He called a meeting of his new Council of Ministers, formed to guarantee the stability and continuity of the institutions. “The best Cabinet of the last three years”, he announced to those summoned, in an almost relaxed atmosphere.
He retired to write his resignation speech. Only. As he only wanted to stay in the minutes before appearing at the door of number 10 Downing Street. Surrounded by dozens of faithful officials and deputies, and close to his wife, who was carrying little Romy, their second daughter, in a kangaroo backpack, he admitted the end of his delirium: “Friends, in politics no one is even remotely essential” .
When it was all over, and back inside the building, she fell into a revealing hug with Carrie, Wilfred, and Romy. Rare photos of Johnson displaying tenderness with his two youngest children. The evidence that he also needed the affection of his people from time to time.