'A startling account': Keith Simpson reviews 'The Fall of Boris Johnson'
Perhaps too soon to claim to be the definitive story, Sebastian Payne has nonetheless delivered a well written and serious analysis of a chaotic premiership
Of course with the best will in the political world this book on the fall of Boris Johnson comes too soon to justify its claim to be “the full story”. But it is a good interim account. Sebastian Payne is the Whitehall editor and columnist for the Financial Times and the author of Broken Heartlands, an excellent analysis of the loss of Labour seats in the North and Midlands. He was persuaded to write this book by his publishers and his sources are really based on 40 hours of interviews with cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, MPs and close confidants of the former prime minister. Sources are also taken from the internet and government publications.
Payne asked each person interviewed whether it was inevitable that the Johnson premiership would end in resignation or if there was an alternative narrative? This book is well written and at times the scenes described and the behaviour of the participants read like a script from Monty Python’s Flying Circus! Yet this is a serious political analysis which tries to describe the roller-coaster nature of the Johnson premiership. Payne makes clear that Johnson was chosen by the Conservatives because he was not a caricature Tory and had shown as mayor of London that he could attract votes from non-Conservative Londoners. Johnson was elected leader in 2019 to deliver Brexit after the chaos of the previous four years and delivered an outstanding electoral victory.
Payne shows that whilst few Conservative MPs thought that Johnson would govern in a conventional way, they had not expected such a chaotic premiership. If there is a criticism of this book then it is a failure to outline in sufficient detail the chaotic track record of Johnson in his personal and political life over the previous 20 years. He does show Johnson’s amazing self-belief and presumption that rules and conventions applied to other mortals.
Payne credibly outlines the three consecutive periods when Johnson’s Downing Street teams struggled to implement policies. The first team was led by the Brexit mastermind Dominic Cummings and it failed because Johnson refused to grant total power and influence to his consigliere. The second team under Dan Rosenfield collapsed because he did not have Johnson’s confidence or the ability to rebuild the Downing Street operation during the partygate scandals. The third under the cabinet minister Steve Barclay was unable to cope with the myriad scandals or establish relations with backbench MPs.
At times the behaviour of the participants reads like a script from Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Payne points out that throughout his premiership Johnson was usually absent overseas during key moments of crisis. Out of country and out of touch he was unable to read the atmosphere and react decisively. Payne argues that Johnson was unable to survive the “three P’s” which cumulatively destroyed his premiership: the Paterson affair which dealt a fatal blow to relations with his MPs; partygate, which Johnson tried to brazen out; and finally the Chris Pincher affair which displayed his poor judgement.
There were policy successes during the Johnson premiership, including the vaccine booster programmes and his robust support of Ukraine faced with Russian aggression, both thanks to the use of small expert teams.
The final few days of the Johnson premiership ended in farce with the steady flow of ministerial resignations as ministers were unable to support the rackety leadership. Payne shows that Johnson and his core supporters blamed Rishi Sunak for conspiring against him.
Johnson’s relationship with Tory MPs was contractual – as long as he was an election winner they supported him; when that support collapsed they inevitably decided he had to go.
For those Conservative MPs and activists who dream of a triumphant Johnsonian return this study is a sobering corrective. I enjoyed reading this book – it was a startling account of a few traumatic months – well worth adding to the Christmas stocking.
Keith Simpson is former Conservative MP for Broadland and Mid Norfolk
The Fall of Boris Johnson: The Full Story
By: Sebastian Payne
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.