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Boris Johnson blames the herd The PM's resignation speech smacked of butthurt

He's going. Credit: Dan Kitwood/Getty


July 8, 2022   4 mins

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.


Sam Leith is literary editor of The Spectator. His forthcoming book, The Haunted Wood: A History of Childhood Reading, is out in September.
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peter barker
peter barker
1 year ago

He wasn’t stitched up by anybody. It’s true that there were a lot of people determined to dislike him and oppose anything he did (Remainers, Guardianistas, BBC etc) but he had a lot of good will from people who voted him in with that huge majority.
Much good will towards him also accrued from Brexiters, people who thought he did well with the vaccines programme and him helping to lead the western powers in concrete support of Ukraine etc.
However, the negatives against him that are of his own doing have come to overwhelm the positives. (Negatives being, for starters: his intransigence on net zero, his failure to in any way control illegal immigration, failure to push back on the minorities who seem to want to belittle British history/culture, high taxation levels and latterly his ongoing barefaced fibbing.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago
Reply to  peter barker
  • intransigence on net zero
  • his failure to in any way control illegal immigration
  • failure to push back on the minorities who seem to want to belittle British history/culture
  • high taxation levels

Wait till Labour get in!

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

What a compelling reason to vote Tory: “exactly the same as Labour, but a bit slower.”
Think I’ll be staying home with my feet up come the next election.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

Staying at home won’t help.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

That might be all you can afford to once a Labour government raids your income.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Just imagine!

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

If they do it will be his and the Tories’ fault having wasted an almost unprecedented opportunity.

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

perfect summary!

Michael Yeadon
Michael Yeadon
1 year ago
Reply to  peter barker

You wait. In due course it will be appreciated that they “vaccines” do not work at all (it’s all data fraud) & are of unprecedented toxicity.

I doubt the PM has the slightest clue about either feature of these awful agents, but plenty of people in & around government do know.

David B
David B
1 year ago
Reply to  Michael Yeadon

Among many others, Mathew Crawford at Rounding The Earth has been particularly relentless and fastidious in his staggeringly in-depth analysis of vaccine failure and adverse events.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago
Reply to  peter barker

Looking at the leadership contenders most of them are either BAME or women so that particular narrative from the Guardian and the left will have to change.

Matt M
Matt M
1 year ago

He was completely stitched up by his own side (notably the bitter Dominic Cummings) and a media and deep-state that have wanted to bring him down since day one. As far as I can tell his only sin was being given a piece of cake in a socially-distanced group of staff on his birthday. A ridiculously trivial thing to lose a PM over.
Under the circumstances, I think his leaving speech was pretty restrained.
One of the things I have always admired about Boris is the fact that he doesn’t go in for the wretched, Californian, heart-on-sleeve tearfulness that is unfortunately the mark of the modern man.
“Them’s the breaks” are good parting words for an Englishman.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt M
Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

Hear, hear

Will Will
Will Will
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

Getting rid of Cummings was the beginning of the end, although some might reasonably say the decline started as soon as he was elected.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

Sorry. He stitched himself up.

Andrew Langridge
Andrew Langridge
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt M

‘His only sin was being given a piece of cake’? If you removed your partisan blinkers, you’d have mentioned his corruption (Owen Paterson), his lying to parliament (‘there were no parties in Downing Street’), the 126 fixed penalty notices for his staff, his promotion of a known serial abuser etc.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Langridge
Jim Jam
Jim Jam
1 year ago

It was a typically weasely, obfuscating speech. The only dubious credit I can muster is his refusal to apologise; yeah he definitely owes one, but on balance the sight of him grovelling in front of the very people who have hated him from day one (and who certainly wouldn’t accept an apology anyway) would have made an even more pathetic spectacle.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim Jam
Richard Abbot
Richard Abbot
1 year ago

The herd are to blame for most things. Or am I on the wrong website?

Paige M
Paige M
1 year ago

Things that make you go hmmmmmmm. Being forced out by a series of unserious scandals. Come to Canada. I’ve stopped counting the serious scandals, lies, and corruption imparted on the citizenry by the Trudeau Liberals, but since he’s from the Left Tribe we can’t get rid of him. It’s mind-numbingly grotesque. I wouldn’t be too excited about Boris’s departure just yet.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 year ago

John Crace had Boris down perfectly 3 years or more ago: “Piffle paffle, wiffle waffle”. If in doubt distract: it saves one the trouble of fishing up ideas and buys time for pursuing business as usual.

The only surprise, really, is that he remained in place so long. And we may be waiting a while for any Sir Galahad to recapture lost virtue, I think.

Last edited 1 year ago by Richard Parker
CHARLES STANHOPE
CHARLES STANHOPE
1 year ago

“brought low by a flock of sheep” An unfortunate analogy Mr Leith if I may say so.

May I recommend John Lewis-Stempel’s ‘The Sheep’s Tale’? Where you will read of the prowess of the 23 and a half stone Suffolk ram charmingly named “Action Ram”. An absolutely stunning gladiatorial beast who would have had little problem in ‘seeing off’ the entire Tory Party, Boris included.

Rhys
Rhys
1 year ago

Can anyone please tell me what he actually achieved?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Rhys

There is no doubt that he (finally) broke the Parliamentary constitutional crisis and got us out of the EU. The reason the Tories voted for Johnson as leader was precisely his (then) popularity among the ordinary public and his consequent ability to do that.

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago

Its terribly easy to pillory an individual in this bitter world of spittle flecked hatred. I’m reminded of the day Margaret Thatcher passed away and the pubs in Westminster and Orgreave reverberated to the sound of The Wicked Witch is Dead. The enticing and fun cult of personality. But Boris Johnson is different, unlike MT who handbagged her way to the top, he was foisted on us by the (ridiculously named) grandees of the Tory to party who put him there for one reason and one reason only, to win an 80 seat majority and then implement the narrow will of the people. These things he did. Only then were we all surprised, then mildly then seriously concerned, when he began to perform in the way he did. Who’d have guessed? Dom Sandbrook compares Ronald Reagan, this is spot on. A similar jokey everyman but who surrounded himself with (or was surrounded by) big beasts like Haig, Baker and Weinberger to get the job done whilst he, Reagan, called on his friend Gorby to tear down that wall. The party in power, the Tory party, was exposed as nothing but a train of 2nd, 3rd and 4th rate politicians like Gove, Cameron, Osborne, Hancock, Duncan-Smith and the comic turn Rees Moog et al unable to do anything about the slow car crash. The whole thing aided of course by a similarly hopeless, inept, deeply unattractive and ineffectual opposition. I’m no fan of Boris Johnson but to celebrate his demise as I read many do, is to fail to understand what happened and why. There seems not a single statesman (or woman) on the UK horizon able to bring the country together and rebuild post Brexit. It would help if anyone had an ability to strategically think ahead and avoid problems like Norther Ireland, Rishi’s wife, Chris Pincher and the crackpot ‘Dom’ Cummings.

Antony Hirst
Antony Hirst
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

I agree in part. Nobody else would have been able to galvanise the country after the Brexit vote. But it started to go wrong very quickly. As a Brexiteer, I struggle to see which element of my will he successfully or even attempted to implement.
He cossetted the elites with even more fervour than those who went before him. We were warned by one senior Tory that he is a fool, thus we saw.
What is intriguing to me, after lurching from one crisis to another, is why the Chris Pincher issue would be the straw. His destructive and wayward will, coupled with his lack of connection to reality was evident two years ago. Who, which group of Elites, suddenly decided enough was enough?

Last edited 1 year ago by Antony Hirst
Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 year ago
Reply to  Antony Hirst

I think the Pincher issue was the last straw and, like most last straws, bears less on the result than the cumulative events. I assume Sunak and Javid are ambitious and /or acting in good faith as they decided, enough was enough, the moment had arrived. I’m not sure there is a coherent group of any member, let alone Elites, in the Tory party at present.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

Gove is the exception in that list. He hugely improved the education system among other things by reducing the dead hand of bureaucratic, egalitarian local authority control.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago

Byung-Chul Han’s notion of “the swarm” comes to mind, unwittingly echoed in Boris Johnson’s reference to the herd: multiple persons, in this case politicians, incapable of forming a “we”, and so acting together only reactively to a target individual who becomes an intolerable scandal.
The clichĂ© of the battle for the soul of the party will no doubt be overused now, though “soul” is the word, Han would add, as only persons with a shared soul can form a “we”. The lack of soul prompts fragmentation into the swarm – a crisis not only gripping the Conservative Party.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Vernon
Arkadian X
Arkadian X
1 year ago

“That point informed a dominant figure of the speech: apostrophe, a showy changing of your ostensible addressee.”
(Beginning of 5th paragraph)

What on earth does it mean?

Sandra Ricks
Sandra Ricks
1 year ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Perhaps your question is rhetorical, to highlight the opacity of the author’s turn of phrase, here. (Ironic, given that he is author of Write To The Point: How To Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page.) In which case, please excuse me.
In case your question is a genuine question, I looked up the answer, because it was not clear to me, either:
From https://www.thefreedictionary.com/apostrophe:
a·pos·tro·phe 2  (ə-pƏsâ€Čtrə-fē)
n.The direct address of an absent or imaginary person or of a  personified abstraction, especially as a digression in the course of a  speech or composition. [Late Latin apostrophē, from Greek, from apostrephein, to turn  away; see apostrophe1.]
So Leigh is saying that BJ switched from addressing the British public, to the Ukrainian public. Leigh goes on to say, “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.”

Nick Faulks
Nick Faulks
1 year ago

If anyone still wondered why it was vital for Johnson to be out of 10 Downing St, they have their answer now.

Alan Thorpe
Alan Thorpe
1 year ago

The achievements he listed were really problems that he created and why he ultimately had to go. The rest of the cabinet who had supported him in these policies finally woke up to the disaster they had jointly created and Boris had to take the blame. Now the cabinet is fighting to find out who will be lucky enough to continue with their disastrous policies. The next PM cannot be a member of Johnson’s cabinet.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 year ago

Seriously, is there anything he could have said that wouldn’t be mocked or derided by the professional mocking deriders? I’ll tell you this: it was Cicero compared to what Joe Biden will be forced to do, and not soon enough.

Mark Vernon
Mark Vernon
1 year ago

Maybe Byung-Chul Han’s notion of “the swarm” is relevant here, unwittingly echoed in Boris Johnson’s reference to the herd – a swarm being people, in this case politicians, who are incapable of forming a “we”, and can act only reactively in response to a target individual who temporarily organises them insofar as he or she becomes an unbearable, intolerable scandal.

Last edited 1 year ago by Mark Vernon
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 year ago

It’s going to be fun revisiting the comments of Unherd readers in the last few months about Johnson when we have a Labour government.

Hopefully my pension can withstand the Labour onslaught (where else can they plunder funds to support their spending except pension savings, taxes and assets) when it comes.

David McKee
David McKee
1 year ago

It’s a good analysis, but it would have been so much better if it had been compared to other recent resignation statements – May, Cameron, Blair, Thatcher.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Johnson wasn’t the ‘Big Dog’, he was the latest in a series of rabbits that the Tories pulled out of their collective hat in order to win the next election. First there was Cameron’s referendum promise in 2015. Then there was May’s Remainer conspiracy to control Brexit, which almost lost the 2017 election to Corbyn. Then there was Johnson and a promise that even he didn’t understand to ‘Get Brexit Done’ in 2019. Given that Labour’s strategy for the next election seems to be to offer the stability of the grave in contrast to Johnson’s chaos, the Tories now need to choose a politician who offers a strategy to move Britain out of the coming economic slump.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

There were more stories coming out of sexual pecadillos and the Tories decided to put a lid on it.

Maureen Finucane
Maureen Finucane
1 year ago

A subordinate does not and should not expect to appear day after day before the media apologising for their boss. Ludicrous! One thing Tories don’t like is looking like a laughing stock.