Nothing betrays the character of our outgoing prime minister more than the way he’s indicated his departure from office. For, presumably to hang onto his prime-ministerial salary as long as possible, he hasn’t actually left yet. A half-decent leader would have resigned at once, allowing someone else to take the reins until his party had the wit to choose a successor. It’s final confirmation of what we already knew. Johnson lacks the necessary shame to leave the office for which he was so astonishingly unsuited; it’s his final morphing into Trump, a man who, needing to wipe his own backside, uses his country’s constitution.

Let it never be forgotten that Johnson was forced out because of moral failings, not over any ideological differences

Let it never be forgotten that Johnson was forced out because of moral failings, not over any ideological differences. By the time he made his graceless statement of surrender on 7 July, no one could have any doubt that in addition to being a pathological liar, a cheat and a coward, he’s lazy, arrogant, and disloyal, not to mention infantile in his narcissism. But ensuing briefings by his so-called friends – some of whom are too stupid to see how they were being manipulated – about him allegedly thinking of withdrawing his promise to resign, or wanting his name on the party ballot, or failing that becoming Secretary-General of NATO (for pity’s sake), have finally turned him into an object of contempt. Even so, he threatens to use his last honours list to put yet another cadre of undeserving and unsuitable people into the House of Lords, as reward for nothing more than having shamelessly toadied up to him. Thus would another few sheets be torn off the constitution’s bog-roll. The Commons’ Privileges Committee has an opportunity this autumn to conclude that Johnson lied to the House and to throw him out of British politics. Hopefully it will seize the chance, and put an end forever to his soiling of our public life.

And yet this is the same man who the current favourite to replace him in Downing Street, Liz Truss, says should never have resigned. I hope for the country’s sake she does not really think this and has said it simply to suck up to the thousands of semi-functioning imbeciles with a vote in the present contest who believe that Johnson was “betrayed”. We should be grateful I suppose that she apparently recalls the quality of the job Johnson did as Foreign Secretary – which should have been enough to rule him out of any future in government – and has made it known that she won’t offer him a post in her administration if she wins. “Liz might be mad,” one of her non-admirers told me, “but she is not that mad.”

And what about the other end of the pantomime horse? It’s hard not to have sympathy for Rishi Sunak, though in many regards (and, as the old joke goes, there is much competition for the post) he is his own worst enemy. He is undeniably clever and knows something about the private sector – if only the uber elite part of it – something increasingly rare in a Tory party peopled by ex-special advisers and think-tankers. Unlike his rival he had the courage to resign, though there are mixed messages about his reasons for doing so – was it moral distaste or economic policy? Also, unlike his rival he was never a member of the Liberal Democrats, never so deranged by ambition that he voted Remain only to subsequently claim happiness that Leave won, and never sought the overthrow of the monarchy. But being filthy rich – even if most of the filthy richness is Mrs Sunak’s – goes down badly in our society, and the Green Card was, well, not a great idea for someone who aspires to be the Queen’s First Minister.

Which, if she refrains from shooting herself in the foot with any more policy reversals, leaves us with Miss Truss. As her record shows, her principles are tradeable. She and her advisers have capitalised on her lead among the Tory party’s 166,000 or so voting members by not just giving an easy ride to Johnson, but by promising all sorts of things that excite them: tax cuts (whether affordable or not), grammar schools, a demand that police cut crime by 20 per cent (good luck with that), selling Channel 4, no Scottish referendum and boosting the so-called “northern powerhouse”. Also, more defence spending – something that attracted the support of Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, who is highly regarded by both colleagues and the grassroots. How many of these things does she actually believe in? And how many would be jettisoned if the going got rough? The Mrs Thatcher act – sitting in a tank and parading around Moscow in a fur hat – also tickles the faithful. Even Mrs Thatcher had to start somewhere, but does anyone believe Truss will ever emulate Thatcher’s recalibration of the economy and creation of a new consensus that even New Labour had to buy into?

She might never be given the chance. There have been better times to become prime minister. Some eliminated candidates, notably Kemi Badenoch (whom every Tory activist, wants in the next Cabinet), were alarmingly realistic about the tough winter that lies ahead. Even if the Ukraine war were to end tomorrow, the prices of energy, petrol and diesel are certain to be painfully high in the months to come. Interest rates will continue to rise to check inflation, and not everyone has a fixed-rate mortgage. Disposable income is sinking. There are already copious anecdotes about the clientele of food banks becoming increasingly comprised of wage-earning people who simply can’t afford to feed their families. The National Health Service is reportedly on the verge of collapse despite the warm summer, so God knows how it will cope with even a routine January flu epidemic. Russia will remain a problem as it continues to decline; China will become a bigger one; the EU is shaken by fuel shortages, a declining euro, the undermining of the German economy and the near-bankruptcy of Italy, and the aggressive cultural restiveness of Hungary and Poland. All of which means that when results in the Tory ballot are announced on 5 September the winner might soon have cause to wish they’d never gone into politics at all.

Could either Sunak or Truss be described as the best the Conservative party had to offer? Well, having been paid by my newspaper to read Penny Mordaunt’s bizarre manifesto Greater, I think MPs might have done the nation a favour by not picking her, not least because of her strange obsession with those who wish to have sex changes. Both Mrs Badenoch and Tom Tugendhat showed a grown-up approach to the confrontation of political problems, something largely lacking from the campaigns of the two finalists. Sadly, as Johnson found out with the pandemic and then the Ukraine war, serious tests of will, character and ability eventually come along for all prime ministers. So we shall soon find out how heavy the metal is that our next one carries.

Meanwhile, the Tories need to reconsider their dreadful mechanism for electing a leader. There is a far better case for leaving it up to MPs than for putting it out to the membership. The present system seems to imagine the Tories are in permanent opposition and have the leisure to spread a contest over three months. MPs should also be better judges of political ability than the geriatric county folk who form the Tory electoral base, although that is debatable at present. Nearly 60 years ago, after Tory grandees installed Lord Home and not Rab Butler to succeed Macmillan, Iain Macleod – a Butler supporter – wrote a famous article condemning the “magic circle”. But judging by the way this unsatisfactory contest has been conducted, people will soon be clamouring for it to be brought back.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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