There was a moment last year when Boris Johnson was reported to have gone awol (absent without leave) from governing the country in order to work on a book about Shakespeare.
At the time, many commentators blamed his absence for a crucial delay in decision-making which contributed to thousands of avoidable, Covid-related deaths. Be that as it may, or was, he returned to the helm of state, brushed off many a criticism, and managed to persuade gullible members of the media and electorate that he possessed Teflon qualities and was invincible.
However, the events of the last month have established, in the poet Robert Browning’s phrase, that it will never be “glad confident morning again” for Johnson.
Also, if he has had time, in Cole Porter’s great line, to “brush up” his Shakespeare”, no doubt the words of Claudius will be haunting him: “When sorrows come, they come not single spies / But in battalions.”
Yes, it has been one damn thing after another, the climax being the North Shropshire byelection, in which a constituency that had voted 60% in favour of Brexit, and been Tory for donkey’s years, turned against the prime minister who claimed to have “got Brexit done”.
The byelection was forced upon the Conservatives because their addiction to “sleaze” had finally caught up with them. Sorry: did I say “Conservatives”? We owe it to a no less respectable figure than Chris – now Lord – Patten, a former chairman of the Conservative and Unionist party, to acknowledge that the present party is more appropriately referred to as the English Nationalist party.
But the big issue at the byelection was righteous indignation at the revelation of the government’s blatant hypocrisy last December in flouting its own rules and partying, while most of the populace were obeying the restrictions. In the end, the British public, about whose judgment one sometimes despairs – that Brexit vote! – decides that enough is enough.
For British business, long suffering under Johnson’s arrogant attitude – “[expletive deleted] business”, as he is reported to have said in 2018 – enough was enough when the prime minister gave his rambling “Peppa Pig World” address to the annual Confederation of British Industry conference.
The CBI speech was in Newcastle, the byelection in Shropshire. At the time, in the interest of switching off from Brexit and Covid in the evenings, I was re-reading the novels of PG Wodehouse. Johnson is often referred to as resembling a character out of Wodehouse, although I suspect that if Wodehouse were still with us, he would not give Johnson the time of day.
The Lord Emsworth novels are set in Shropshire; but Blandings Castle – modelled, I think, on Weston Park – is in southern Shropshire. Nevertheless, I think Johnson made a mistake in drawing attention to pigs in his CBI speech. The pig industry, and much of English farming, is in a bad way as a consequence of Brexit, and I suspect that their travails also played a role in the angry vote in North Shropshire, which is a rural constituency.
In one Wodehouse novel, Lord Emsworth’s prize pig, the Empress of Blandings, goes off her food, but finally yields to an American pig farmer’s magic cry: “Pig-hoo-o-o-o-ey!” The American word “hooey”, not in popular use these days, means nonsense or rubbish. It deserves a revival. It epitomises much of what Johnson’s English Nationalist party stands for.
But back to the battalions: out goes Brexit “negotiator” Lord Frost; in comes Brexit negotiator Liz Truss. What do Johnson, Frost and Truss have in common? They are all living practitioners of Groucho Marx’s great pronouncement: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.”
We know that both Johnson and Frost are on record before the Brexit referendum as being well aware that, as members of the EU, we had the best of both worlds: we were members of a great trading bloc, and enjoyed the equivalent of a “get out of jail free” card for most of the things we didn’t want. But what of Truss? It has been widely reported that she, too, used to be a Remainer, but seized the main chance of elevation by becoming a Brexiter.
However, we owe it to that great student of all things European, my old friend Charles Grant, to discover that all is not what it seems with the Rt Hon Truss. Grant has known her a long time. In an article for the Centre for European Reform thinktank, of which he is director, he reveals that, before converting to the Remain cause for Cameron’s referendum, Truss was a Eurosceptic. She gets about in the course of her career, she does.