THE Tory Cabinet has once again divided into Leavers and Remainers. Only this time it is nothing to do with Brexit. It is to do with a series of calculations that they made about political decency, party loyalty, and the furtherance of their careers.
Consider the Leavers first. The two men who set the ball rolling offered slightly diverging explanations. The former Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, suggested that the Prime Minister had no stomach for the hard fiscal policies essential in an age of inflation. The outgoing Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, emphasised the Government’s current lack of competence. But both pointed to Boris Johnson’s lack of integrity.
Such a recognition is welcome, if long overdue, from two men who were sitting either side of the PM around the Cabinet table 24 hours earlier. They had supported Mr Johnson through the illegal proroguing of Parliament, Owen Paterson, Wallpapergate, Partygate, Sue Gray, Rwanda, breaking international law, and a disastrous set of by-elections. But they both drew the line at the PM’s promotion of a man whom he knew to have a history of sexual harassment. And yet it is hard to see the difference between that and all Mr Johnson’s other offences, which all boil down to an utter disregard for personal and political ethics — and a tendency to lie when caught out.
Oliver Dowden, when he resigned as Conservative Party chairman, said: “Somebody must take responsibility.” The Leavers have decided that it will no longer be them. Indeed, Messrs Sunak and Javid have probably calculated that they have both boosted their credentials as a future party leader in the post-Boris era.
Leadership calculations were at play among the Remainers, too. The Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, clearly decided that her leadership ambitions would be better served by not being seen to wield the anti-Boris knife.
Nadhim Zahawi was so convinced that his chances were better inside the Cabinet than out that he privately threatened to resign, too, if he wasn’t made Chancellor. (The PM was going to give the job to Liz Truss.) Mr Zahawi reckoned that he would get greater name recognition in the party by becoming Chancellor than he would by merely being this week’s third Cabinet quitter.
What became clear was that the Cabinet was diminished by the departure of two of the few minsters with the personality to stand up to Mr Johnson. The Remainers looked, as one pundit put it, ever more pygmy-like. A few of them prize slavish loyalty as the ultimate Tory virtue. Others — such as Priti Patel, Nadine Dorries, or Jacob Rees-Mogg — realised that they are too third-rate ever to get a Cabinet post under any other Tory leader, resolving to cling on until HMS Boris sank.
As for the rest, Mr Javid spoke directly to them in the House of Commons, on Wednesday. His former Cabinet colleagues had been walking a tightrope between loyalty and integrity. Time and again, like him, they had given Mr Johnson the benefit of the doubt. But the reset button could be pressed only so many times before the conclusion was reached that there was something fundamentally wrong.
This column is being written on Wednesday, and it is unclear whether Mr Johnson will still be in No. 10 by the time it is read. The prevailing mood, though, was clear: fear of being tainted with the rot that emanates from the man whom they have kept in office too long.