Dishevelled, depressed and looking like a man condemned, Boris Johnson’s demeanour at Prime Minister’s Questions last week appeared less like a national leader and more like the aristocrat awaiting the fall of the guillotine. It was not a look that was inappropriate. As Britain heads into an inevitable second national lockdown, Boris Johnson’s time as Prime Minister is undoubtedly up.
As the days have gone by, more and more of Boris Johnson’s “private worries” have been seen in the press. His tragic concern that £150,000 a year just isn’t enough to live on, his struggles as a new father amidst the responsibility of leadership, his jaunt to Perugia to apparently baptise his son.
The fact these stories are appearing now, alongside even more salacious ones on social media, makes their intent and origins clear and should the Prime Minister fall on his sword to “spend more time with his family”, there would be few political eyebrows raised.
Indeed, the writing has appeared on the wall for Johnson ever since the worldwide outbreak of COVID-19. His acquiescence to those calling for a national lockdown has been unpalatable to the City worshipping hawks of Camp Gove and his allies amongst the billionaires and allied media barons on Fleet Street.
Surely nobody believes those in the right-wing press who have turned against Johnson suddenly gained a conscience, do they?
Gove, whose ambition to be Prime Minister has coloured his entire career, will undoubtedly believe that his time has finally come. How can we forget his almost Shakesperian defeat by Theresa May in 2017 despite having enacted “the most spectacular political assassination in a generation” when he knifed Boris Johnson. Keeping your enemies close is not quite the pearl of wisdom people believe.
Gove is said to be one of the chief voices in the cabinet that railed against the first national lockdown, the decision splitting the cabinet. Thatcherite to his core, Gove and his ilk’s primary concern has always been keeping Britain “open for business” and saving the economy as opposed to any interest in the cost to human life.
Scientists will undoubtedly have already laid bare to the government to scale of the oncoming catastrophe this winter with the second wave. Given the internal and external pressure to enact a second lockdown will be enormous, Gove and his City backers must act swiftly.
He will have the backing of the far-right. The anti-mask/lockdown messaging has been heard loud and clear.
Baroness Warsi once described Michael Gove as having “radicalised” David Cameron via his “crazy” views on Islam that echo those of Donald Trump. It is a different form of racism than Boris Johnson’s, less reminiscence for the age of empire and far closer to the brutality of fascism. Gove is a man who would have no qualms about dealing out the kind of violence we see from the United States against Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland.
What Camp Gove perhaps hadn’t contended with was the swift ascension of Rishi Sunak as the champion of the wets. The personable Sunak has the advantage that all neoliberals crave — he looks good in a suit. With something of the Tony Blair and David Cameron about him, Sunak serves to present a modern and fresh outlook that the hideously Thatcherite Gove can’t. He can be marketed.
Conversely, Gove carries the manner of being something not quite human, seeming more like a stock character from HP Lovecraft than the leader of a world-leading nation. Making the skin crawl is never an advantage in politics.
Perhaps Gove has yet again overplayed his hand and, despite the Tories getting ever increasingly right-wing, overestimated his own party’s willingness to turn itself entirely over to a British MAGA movement. With Sir Keir Starmer offering a viable alternative for right-of-centre neoliberalism, many might perhaps be wary of being seen as too far-right. Might they perhaps prefer the “compromise” of Sunak as they did Theresa May? Yet others may be genuinely concerned over Gove’s stance on the COVID-19 crisis, others might be wary of Sunak’s inexperience at this time of national emergency.
Just this past week The Daily Mail saw fit to print the ongoing comments of Lady Swire, expressly observing how she describes him as “dangerous” and “dishonest with ambition”. The game is truly afoot.
No matter the outcome, the pieces are seemingly now in play for the Conservative Party to go for another round of Brutus and Ceasar. Whether Johnson survives the long knives or we see the coronation of Gove or Sunak, the losers will continue to be the British people. The Tories’ eternal gamesmanship will send Britain back into political turmoil amidst the most significant national crisis of our lifetime.