We now have our third Tory prime minister in seven weeks — Rishi Sunak, a former finance minister. Sometimes, I genuinely wonder if the British electorate has a humiliation kink. Maybe it’s because I’m not invested in conservative ideology or feel opposed to many of their core values, but when I come across people who remain ardent Tories, nothing else makes sense to me.
Sometimes, I genuinely wonder if the British electorate has a humiliation kink.
But perhaps one of the most head-scratching moments of this whole ordeal was how Boris Johnson’s supporters were pushing for him to make a comeback following Liz Truss’ disastrous 44 days as prime minister.
After a short-lived campaign, Johnson ruled out the possibility Sunday. But that there was even a chance that he could be a candidate after he resigned in disgrace following his mishandling of a sexual misconduct issue within his party speaks volumes.
But before I go into that, let me catch you up quickly on the level of embarrassment we’ve been experiencing in the U.K.
During Truss’ short premiership, she lost two crucial members of her Cabinet (she fired her finance minister and her home secretary resigned). She also tanked the economy, U-turned on a number of her plans like tax cuts and then looked on as her new finance minister reversed the majority of her policies mere days after she vehemently defended them. Things got so bad that the tabloid newspaper The Daily Star created a YouTube livestream where a head of unrefrigerated lettuce was placed next to a photo of Truss to see which one would survive the longest.
Many of us thought Truss’ catastrophic time as leader was inevitable, given that before she became prime minister, she was most famous for her rant about cheese.
Another thing that felt just as inevitable was that, as the government once again fell to pieces, it was being cobbled back together without a general election. Instead, Sunak was put into power exclusively by Conservative members of Parliament. Because his most probable opponent, Penny Mordaunt, dropped out at the eleventh hour, he was the only candidate left standing. He won by default without the vote being decided online by all Conservative Party members, as planned.
Of course, limiting the decision of a new prime minister to the members of one party alone is undemocratic, but the fact that Sunak was elected by a select number of MPs (who arguably had their own agendas) and not a single member of the general public is borderline dictatorial. Four of our last five prime ministers have been chosen without a general election. While it is still feasible for one to be called, U.K. law means it is pretty much at the prime minister’s discretion whether a general election happens before January 2025 — when the next one is due to take place.
Of course, limiting the decision of a new prime minister to the members of one party alone is undemocratic.
But as predictable as this chain of events was, one thing that I genuinely didn’t expect was the media, members of Parliament and the public touting Johnson to become prime minister again.
From tweets by MPs to more lengthy endorsements — with one since-deleted pro-Johnson article by MP Nadhim Zahawi being published minutes after news broke that Johnson wouldn’t move forward with his leadership campaign after all — the support he received was striking. Now, all these public figures have had to make an embarrassing U-turn.
Even worse than Johnson receiving MP endorsements — he claimed that he had reached the all-important benchmark of the 100 backers needed to make his leadership bid official — was the fact that people outside the Westminster bubble seemed willing to give him another chance.
A recent petition, for example, called “Bring Back Boris” surpassed 25,000 signatures before it was shut down. At the same time, recent data by YouGov also showed that the majority of Conservatives (who, again, were the ones meant to vote for our future prime minister) wanted to see Johnson return as leader. Local media also showed people crying out for Johnson to return.
The most concerning thing was that some news outlets acted like Johnson’s becoming prime minister again was a credible way forward after everything he had done. A number of the right-wing tabloids, for instance, treated Johnson’s potential as some kind of “soft launch” or heroic last chance saloon. The Daily Express talked about Boris “bouncing back,” while The Sun teased that Johnson was “eyeing the mother of all comebacks.”
The most concerning thing was that some news outlets acted like Johnson’s becoming prime minister again was a credible way forward after everything he had done.
It goes back to what I said earlier about the humiliation kink. Why else do so many people keep going back to someone with such blatant contempt for them? It really doesn’t make sense. He unlawfully prorogued or cut short Parliament’s time to discuss his Brexit bill in 2019; ignored scientists’ advice about Covid-19 lockdown procedures; continually flouted the very lockdown rules he instilled, having boozy parties while people attended Zoom funerals for their grandmas. That just scratches the surface of the damage he did as prime minister. The economic prosperity he promised on the side of a bus was replaced with what is now being dubbed a “cost of living crisis,” with energy bills and inflation reaching record highs and the likelihood of energy blackouts this winter.
There’s no doubt that, in the short time she was in charge, Truss made things a lot worse, but the problems we’re facing as a country have been present longer than her 44 days in office. Her consecutive blunders didn’t come out of the blue. They were a direct result of the gaping hole Johnson dug in his three-year premiership.
The possibility that he could’ve been given another chance — especially so soon after his disgraceful departure — is alarming. As the country shifts its focus to Sunak, it may soon be easy to forget that Conservative members of Parliament and the public really thought it would be good for the country to have Johnson back. But we should not forget. To move on as a country, we have to stop repeating the same mistakes. That means the public must continue to push for general elections so that the power of who gets to lead us is always in the hands of the people.