July 8, 2022

In a good mood, Boris Johnson likes to ramble, but his resignation speech as Prime Minister was just a few minutes long. On the surface, it made a creditable attempt to project dignity and generosity and good grace. He admitted that “no-one is remotely indispensable” and called having been Prime Minister “a privilege” and “an education”. But you could discern three main things that, under its mostly mannerly style, it was determined to put across.

In the first place, it was an attempt to present as case-closed the notion that he should be given his wish to continue as Prime Minister until the autumn. In the second, it was an attempt to shape how history would view him, with a recitation of his achievements. And in the third, it was an attempt to cast him as the victim of malign or, at best, unimaginative pygmies. The three dovetailed nicely: point one because point two, therefore point three. The speech’s big theme was: they were wrong and I was right. 

He turned to the first issue right away — and his tactic was not to focus on the point as if it were a question up for debate but, rather, to smuggle it into a subclause as if it were already a given. “I’ve today appointed a Cabinet to serve, as I will, until a new leader is in place.” The important bit in that sentence is the three words “as I will”. Why does he want to carry on? Not out of personal ambition, he assured us, but because of a selfless sense of duty: “The reason I have fought so hard in the last few days to continue to deliver that mandate in person was not just because I wanted to do so, but because I felt it was my job, my duty, my obligation to you to continue to do what we promised in 2019.” He bust out a nice little tricolon in making what rhetoricians call an “ethos appeal”.

The issue of his place in history was addressed with a now familiar litany of catchphrases and statistics — “getting Brexit done”; “delivering the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe”; “leading the West in standing up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine”; “vast programme of investment in infrastructure… the biggest in a century”; “levelling up… unleashing the potential of every part of the United Kingdom” and so on. Nor was he slow to remind us of the electoral mandate that underpinned his arguments to be able to continue in post: “The biggest Conservative majority since 1987, the biggest share of the vote since 1979.”

That point informed a dominant figure of the speech: apostrophe, a showy changing of your ostensible addressee. He vaunted his statesmanship in an aside which showed how there were more important things than party politics — “let me say now to the people of Ukraine that I know that we in the UK will continue to back your fight for freedom for as long as it takes” — taking credit by implication for the UK’s support for Ukraine by reassuring them personally that it would survive his premiership. Otherwise, he more than once made a point of directing his address explicitly to “you, the British public”. The message was that he was speaking to the people over the heads of the parliamentary party. He was deft enough to admit that “there will be many people who are relieved” but kept in mind “quite a few who will also be disappointed”, and it was the latter he affected to console.

It wasn’t, he said, as if he hadn’t tried to make his MPs see sense: “I’ve tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we’re delivering so much and when we have such a vast mandate,” he said. “I regret not to have been successful in those arguments.” “Eccentric”, to give him his due, is a wonderfully effective note of condescension.

His list of thanks might have seemed gracious, even formulaic — but be it noted that he thanked everyone (family, civil service, “Conservative party members and supporters”, staff at Number 10 and Chequers) except his parliamentary colleagues. And he even dropped in a salty little jibe about the Downing Street policemen being “the one group, by the way, who never leak”. And there’s quite a bit of wriggle-room in the way he phrased his pledge of support to his successor: “To that new leader, I say, whoever he or she may be, I say, I will give you as much support as I can.” He didn’t quite say “as much support as I feel like” — but as oaths of fealty go it means much the same thing.

And so to the third thing. Running through these words, like the proverbial golden thread woven through a tapestry, was a distinct glittering line of what might be informally identified as butthurt. He admitted “how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world”. But at no point would the departing Prime Minister concede that there was any good reason for him to resign. He trivialised the criticisms of his character and behaviour as if they were arbitrary gamesmanship on the cricket field — “quite a few months of pretty relentless sledging”. Great men can put up with sledging — all part of the game — but the characters who surrounded him in the parliamentary party just didn’t have the cojones. “Them’s the breaks”: stoical acceptance of his fate, or an attempt to recast reaping what you sow as the operation of dumb luck?

The payoff was a metaphor so bland and unoriginal, so cursory, as to project not the slightest sincerity: “Even if things sometimes seem dark now our future, together, is golden.” That’s going through the motions. Johnson the phrasemaker was present not in the payoff, but in the payload: the main pull-quote from today’s resignation statement that “the herd-instinct is powerful”, casting his detractors in the parliamentary party not so much as independent moral agents but stampeding quadrupeds. Here was a Big Dog, in his view of it, brought low by a flock of sheep.