'Happy birthday to me...' (Christopher Furlong - WPA Pool /Getty Images)

March 22, 2023   4 mins

“No cake was eaten, and no-one even sang happy birthday.” As parties go, it was a miserable one; as scandals go, however, it was more than enough. Amid all the political kerfuffle over his appearance at the Standards and Privileges Committee today, it’s easy to overlook the full, knuckle-biting absurdity of Boris Johnson’s fall from power. The publication of his evidence to the committee yesterday, however, was a jolting reminder of it all; like a painful stab of hangxiety the morning after the night before. Did that really happen? Yes, yes it did.

Here we have a real sentence in a real dossier handed over to a real committee of MPs sitting in judgement of a real former prime minister of the United Kingdom. This, we should remind ourselves, is the most significant political scandal in recent British history; our very own Watergate. Welcome to this great stage of fools that we call British politics.

As easy as it is to mock this farcical episode, there are serious issues at stake. It is important, and reassuring, that there are consequences for MPs — even former prime ministers — when they lie to the House of Commons. Whether Johnson realised he was breaking his own rules or not, he clearly did break them — and now admits as such. “It is now clear that over a number of days, there were gatherings at No. 10 that, however they began, went past the point where they could be said to have been reasonably necessary for work purposes,” Johnson writes, admitting his guilt.

The issue now is whether Johnson knowingly misled parliament about his rule breaking. His hopes of a political comeback are said to rest on the answer. If the committee of MPs conclude Johnson misled the House “recklessly” or “intentionally”, they will recommend he be sanctioned. This could come in the form of an apology: embarrassing, but hardly fatal. Or he could be suspended from parliament. If this is for more than 10 days, it will trigger a recall petition in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency, which could lead to a by-election. This is what Johnson is fighting to avoid.

It’s the sheer idiocy of Johnson’s fall that is most striking. Less than two years ago, it was Labour, not the Tories, who were in disarray and Keir Starmer, not Johnson, was fighting for his political life. Starmer had lost a by-election to Johnson’s Tories in Hartlepool and was facing defeat in Batley and Spen. Had he done so, Starmer faced the real prospect of a leadership challenge. This, remember, was barely 18 months after Johnson had redrawn the electoral map with a landslide victory, winning an 80-seat majority and a new coalition of voters which should have kept him in power for at least another decade.

But Johnson blew it. And for what? It wasn’t for drawing a trade border down the middle of his own country or for his handling of the pandemic. It wasn’t for some mishandled foreign intervention or government failure, policy difference or act of sleaze. Johnson was dragged from power by a rebellion of his own party because they had become so exasperated by his dishonesty and chaotic inability to do the job. “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Even Johnson must know this deep down.

And yet, his return to the spotlight today shouldn’t just be a reminder of the farcical final months of his premiership, but also of the precarious instability of British politics today. Barely six weeks after leaving office, Johnson came close to regaining power. After Liz Truss caused a financial crisis in her first act as prime minister and was forced to resign 44 days after taking charge, Johnson staged an extraordinary attempt to claw back the crown. Flying back from holiday in the Caribbean, he somehow secured enough nominations from Conservative MPs to make it onto a ballot of party members who would probably have chosen him over Sunak had they been given the chance. Having failed to persuade Sunak to stand aside, only then did Johnson drop out of the race, rather than inherit a parliamentary party still largely opposed to his return. This was five months ago.

On the surface, British politics has calmed down since Johnson’s defeat to Sunak in October. There have been no self-inflicted financial crises or dramatic bust-ups with Brussels. A budget has come and gone. The polls are once again closing between Labour and the Tories, prompting speculation that the next election might, in fact, be closer than many had imagined. Sunak is safe and secure — for now.

But let’s be honest. There is every chance that the Tory party will be looking for a new leader within the next two years. That choice will ultimately fall to party members — most of whom still like Johnson. And Johnson will certainly not give up. As the Italian historian Francesco Guicciardini, a contemporary of Macchiavelli, warned, people who say they are happy out of power should never be believed. “As soon as they are offered the chance to return to their previous position, they will seize it with the intensity that a fire seizes dry wood.” Johnson will today desperately try to keep the flame of his political career alive. If he didn’t have that in mind, he would care a lot less about his defence.

Meanwhile, the riptides which took Britain out of the EU and swept Johnson into power have not disappeared either. Britain is stuck. Its economy is poor. The country is divided. Almost half of Scottish voters want to secede. Northern Ireland is in a mess. It takes decades to build anything of any importance — and when it happens, the project is inevitably overtime and over-budget. People’s living standards are falling, public services are getting worse and neither of the main political parties seems to have any good ideas about how to fix any of it. Populist anger at this status quo remains real — and, what’s more, reasonable.

Reflecting on the fall of the Roman Empire, Montesquieu wrote that “if the chance of one battle — that is, a particular cause — has brought a state to ruin, some general cause made it necessary for that state to perish from a single battle”. This observation also applies to the British state. If Johnson’s battle highlights its ruin, this is only because some general cause had weakened it in the first place.

Tom McTague is UnHerd’s Political Editor. He is the author of Betting The House: The Inside Story of the 2017 Election.