Can the Tories recover from ‘Long Johnson’?

Critics say Rishi Sunak and Conservatives tainted by ‘corrupting and debilitating’ impact of Boris Johnson’s premiership on politics

Boris Johnson at the World Economic Forum earlier this month
Boris Johnson remains in the public gaze with an appearance at the World Economic Forum in Davos earlier this month
(Image credit: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Boris Johnson continues to cast a long shadow over the Conservative Party as his successor-plus-one Rishi Sunak struggles to move on from a series of sleaze and integrity scandals.

Sunak finally succumbed yesterday to pressure to sack Tory party chair Nadhim Zahawi, after an independent inquiry found him guilty of “serious” breaches of the ministerial code related to his tax dispute with HMRC.

The Zahawi row, said Rafael Behr in The Guardian, is the latest “symptom” of what has been dubbed “Long Johnson” – “the chronic, recurrent debilitation of government by a pathogen that still circulates in the ruling party long after the original infection has been treated”.

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What did the papers say?

While Sunak’s personal judgement has come under scrutiny in the wake of the Zahawi affair, some senior Tories place the blame for the problems engulfing the prime minister’s government squarely at Johnson’s door. According to the i news site, “MPs are concerned that the legacy of Johnson’s time in power is preventing Sunak from being able to appeal to voters and put the Conservative Party in a better position in the polls”.

Former Tory chancellor George Osborne told Channel 4’s The Andrew Neil Show yesterday that Sunak’s premiership was being “pulled down by a series of scandals that do not directly involve him and are kind of hangovers of the Johnson era”.

A warning was issued last summer by “a grandee from the Conservative establishment” about the “new disease at Westminster”, said Sky News’s Adam Boulton. Former party chair Chris Patten lamented the “persistent corrupting and debilitating impact of Johnson's premiership on British politics and government”.

After taking over at No.10, Sunak appeared to acknowledge the damage wrought by Johnson and his successor Liz Truss, promising “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at every level of government.

But while that pledge “was an attack on previous Conservative leaders”, said The Guardian’s Behr, it has bounced off “its intended targets and keeps rebounding on to Sunak”. The problem is that “to govern with professionalism and accountability would require clearing out all the enablers of turpitude and the apologists for incompetence”. But the prime minister’s base in his party “isn’t wide or sturdy enough to withstand such a purge”, Behr argued.

Tim Stanley agreed in The Telegraph that Sunak had “failed the Nadhim Zahawi test”. And the PM’s “failure to spot an embarrassment early, and sack him immediately, is an indictment of his leadership”.

What next?

Osborne told Andrew Neil yesterday that Sunak should try to define himself as a “sleaze buster” in a bid to put clear water between himself and Johnson.

But the big stumbling block, said Boulton, is that “sizeable minorities in Parliament and perhaps even more in the Tory membership are not loyal to Sunak and hanker for a return of Johnson”.

As Sunak prepares to mark his first 100 days in office on Thursday, he is grappling with a string of senior resignations, nagging questions around the suitability of his home secretary, Suella Braverman, and an ongoing investigation into his deputy, Dominic Raab.

Nor does Johnson appear willing or ready to leave the public stage. According to The Guardian, he has been spotted house-hunting and looking at schools in Oxfordshire, “prompting speculation he is considering running for his former seat of Henley at the next election”.

Downing Street has denied reports that Sunak had agreed to find Johnson a safe seat in exchange for the former leader not challenging him after May’s local elections, in which the Tories are expected to suffer huge losses.

Agreement of not, Johnson could yet be brought down by the privileges committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons over Partygate. But that might be too late for a party that critics claim is tainted by a culture of double-standards and hypocrisy. Sunak has compounded the damage, said The Telegraph’s Stanley, because “when you fail to act swiftly and ruthlessly, you either look inept or tolerant of error”.

As the Tory leader battles to win back voters, said Sky’s Boulton, “urgent decisive action” is needed to show that “he has beaten the plague of Long Johnson”.

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