SIX months ago The Herald took for us what was a rare step – perhaps an unprecedented one for us in recent times – and called for the head of a serving Prime Minister.

The context on January 15 was the universal exasperation over the parties enjoyed by Boris Johnson and his Downing Street colleagues at the very height of lockdown.

More specifically, the paper was reacting to the disclosure that an email had invited dozens of people to “socially distanced drinks in the No 10 garden” on May 20, 2020. In the event, around 30 attended, including Mr Johnson and his wife, Carrie.

T he PM had apologised half-heartedly to the Commons and urged people to wait for Sue Gray’s report. The Herald took the view that he ought to resign forthwith: he had breached the ministerial code and damaged the national sense of solidarity in the face of Covid.

Few really believed that Mr Johnson would oblige, nothing in his make-up suggesting that he would have the good grace to accept responsibility, far less acknowledge that he had broken the rules he had imposed on everyone else.

Six months later, Mr Johnson has finally – reluctantly, churlishly – stepped down after one scandal too far. He had run out of road and his party had run out of patience with his endless dramas and, lately, his Trump-like reluctance to stay on at Number 10.

Shoals of colleagues, senior and junior, had abandoned him, scorning his lack of trustworthiness (though in his defence it has to be said that this was not exactly news). Sajid Javid, Chancellor until last Tuesday, perhaps put it best when he said that “treading the tightrope between loyalty and integrity has become impossible in recent months”.

Commentators and newspapers of a Conservative bent washed their hands of Mr Johnson. “Delusional”, one such newspaper said of his seeming belief that he still retained a special connection with the voters in view of his election victory over Jeremy Corbyn in late 2019. Two heavy by-election defeats, at Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton, would surely have persuaded him that the love affair had deteriorated into something much more tepid and unsatisfactory.

At 9am on Thursday morning Downing Street informed the BBC’s political editor, Chris Mason, that Mr Johnson would be stepping down. Any faint hopes that he would do so with speed, grace and humility did not long survive his opening remarks at the Downing Street lectern at lunchtime.

There is no gainsaying the damage that Mr Johnson has cynically caused, particularly to ethics and standards.

The public’s faith in politicians – never a particularly marked characteristic – has been undermined by the the way in which he contemptuously disregarded rules and conventions, misled the Commons time after time, and took the country to the brink of a constitutional crisis.

He allowed his government to sink into turmoil to the point where everyday planning and decision-making have been disrupted. Business leaders voice concerns that legislation and reform may be affected.

Now the Conservative Party is focusing its energies on a prolonged leadership election. This is not a good time for such a diversion, given the depth of the cost-of-living crisis. Inflation is surging and a recession beckons. Public-sector strikes are also looming.

As things stand, Mr Johnson will remain in Number 10 until his successor takes over. One worries now about what he will do. Will he take the opportunity to exacerbate the row over the Northern Ireland protocol, for instance? Will his makeshift Cabinet be strong enough to slap him down? It cannot be healthy for democracy that such a tainted figure should be permitted to run the country until his successor is named.

Mr Johnson was not without his achievements in office. Having spared the country from enduring the unreliable Corbyn as PM, he brought about a Brexit deal. There was the success of the vaccine development and roll-out; there was, most recently, the courage of his convictions when Ukraine needed international assistance when Putin’s forces poured into the country.

But he rarely seemed interested in the mechanics of governing, never seemed to be keen to devise a programme that would set about transforming the country. He gave the abiding impression that what fascinated him was power, and power alone.

Shorn of bold and assertive advisers – Dominic Cummings, for all his myriad faults, comes to mind – Johnson stumbled from one project to the next, rarely showing any sign of coherent thinking. The squabbling factions that populated Number 10 helped ensure that no definitive philosophy could emerge. The void was filled instead with piecemeal proposals. Many Conservatives who flocked to him in 2019 and had such high hopes for him, ended up feeling bitterly aggrieved at his tax-and-spend approach.

How long ago it all seems now, when Mr Johnson was one of our most popular politicians, with his breezy charm, his artfully-tousled hair and bashful, distracted appearance, his erudition, his ability to make people laugh. It had been a long time since we had a premier with Johnson’s hinterland, which included an idiosyncratic if fascinating biography of Churchill, his hero.

When Mr Johnson arrived in Downing Street in December 2019, propelled there by a landslide majority of 80, perhaps we ought to have paid more heed to the traits that had marked his career – his unreliability, his indiscipline, his habitual laziness, his infidelity, his casual disregard for the truth. With luck, we will show better judgment next time.

The Conservatives have rarely been reluctant to go for the jugular when they judge that their leader has outlived his or her usefulness and become a liability. Mrs Thatcher, the definition of a serial election-winner, had bitter, first-hand experience of that. Mrs May, in more recent times, has too.

Now it is Mr Johnson’s turn. Ahead of him lies perhaps, once his pain subsides, a lucrative memoir. The damage he has caused – to the post of Prime Minister, to his own party – can be repaired. But as the Institute for Government suggested this week, his successor should prioritise a thorough reset of the government’s approach to integrity and standards. The harm inflicted there by Mr Johnson is considerable.


NEXT month cannot come quickly enough. The full-scale return of the Festival and the Fringe will bring colour and crowds to Edinburgh after pandemic-related disruption.

From orchestras and comedians to opera and dance, they have been badly missed. The Tattoo, and the film, TV and book festivals, too.

Welcome back, all.