Boris Johnson is trying again to be noticed. He has signed up with GB News, the disruptive TV channel. My colleague Ryan Coogan wrote yesterday that he will watch, because he thinks the former star of Have I Got News For You? is funny.
I suspect, though, that this will be a niche interest. For most of the British people, the joke has worn so thin that it has worn through. Those voters who used to admire Johnson will be reminded in the next few days why they have ceased to do so.
George Osborne, the former chancellor, says that, “from what I understand”, some of the WhatsApp messages between Johnson and Dominic Cummings, his former chief adviser, that are about to be disclosed by the Covid inquiry, contain some “pretty disgusting language and misogynistic language”. I have no idea from where Osborne – whose chief of staff, Matt Hancock, went on to be health secretary – could have gleaned his information, but I think it is likely to be accurate.
All the same, Johnson still has a determined, if dwindling, band of political supporters. We know that 110 Conservative MPs – nearly one-third of the total – continued to support him after his fall. We know because Sir Graham Brady, the returning officer for Tory leadership elections, said so some months after Johnson pulled out of the second contest last year, despite clearing the hurdle of 100 nominations that had been set to make things difficult for him.
We know that enough Tory members were so offended by Rishi Sunak’s part in Johnson’s downfall that they voted for the patently unqualified Liz Truss, having no other way to express their discontent.
One Tory MP, who dislikes Johnson and wanted him out, told me that the party should have stuck with him after all. “If we could have made the clean switch to Rishi, that would have been fine,” they said, “but the Truss interlude was a disaster.”
Professor Sir John Curtice, the guru of opinion polls and elections, certainly identifies two events as being decisive in driving voters away from the Tories: the lockdown parties revelations and the Truss-Kwarteng mini-Budget.
This reinforces my argument that party leaders should be elected by MPs and MPs alone – because that is how parliamentary democracy works: the person best able to command a majority of the House of Commons should be prime minister; but also because MPs have a better idea of the candidates’ qualities, and because MPs are more in touch with the wider electorate than party members are.
Even so, I am not sure it would have been better for the Tories to have kept Johnson as prime minister. He would have continued to trash the party’s reputation for competence and probity, and his imminent evidence to the Covid inquiry would have been a huge media circus, reminding everyone of the lockdown parties again.
Not even alternative history can rescue Johnson, I think. And GB News certainly can’t. The station is identified with the libertarian, lockdown-sceptic, Trussite wing of the Conservative Party, which is not where he belongs at all.
Despite the publication on Friday of a WhatsApp message from Simon Case, the cabinet secretary who was then No 10 permanent secretary, accusing him of reaching “Trump-Bolsonaro levels of mad and dangerous”, Johnson was regarded by actual lockdown-sceptics as a crazed authoritarian. If anyone in the cabinet could win the GB News crowd it should be Sunak, who led the resistance to lockdowns.
Nor was Johnson a Trussite unfunded tax-cutter: he and Sunak together put up national insurance contributions to pay for the NHS and social care. Johnson’s instincts are those of a liberal Tory – interventionist, high spending and pro-immigration – quite at odds with the GB News spirit.
The new channel has changed the British media set-up a bit. Its audience is still small compared with the BBC and Sky News, but it has had a dramatic effect on what Professor Tim Bale calls the Tory “party in the media”, previously dominated by the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph. As a big name of traditional broadcasting said to me at the Conservative conference in Manchester, the next Tory leadership contest will be fought on GB News: “We won’t get a look-in.”
But Johnson won’t be a candidate in that contest. He won’t even be much of a player. His endorsement will count for little. He has crossed back from politics into light entertainment, but he cannot do LE well anymore because of the weight of former public office bearing down on him.
He is neither one thing nor the other. He is no longer a political project, but neither is he the contrary columnist and TV jokester he once was. He is a busted flush.