The title of this post is taken from King Lear because the sudden withdrawal of Boris Johnson yesterday from the campaign to become the leader of the Conservative Party, following the victory of his Leave side in the Brexit referendum and the subsequent decision by David Cameron that he would resign shortly, took most observers by surprise and has revealed a web of political intrigue that truly deserves the title of Shakespearean, only with less blood.
At first, Johnson’s decision seemed to lend support to the hypothesis that by leaving the decision to his successor as to when to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty that formally initiates the process of withdrawal from the UK, Cameron had handed his successor what was referred to as a ‘poisoned chalice’, in that the adverse consequences of leaving (even if it were short term) would be so severe that the person who made the call would be blamed and would have to quit, leaving the door open for the next leader. Hence it became a game to see who could be made to be left holding the chalice. (Commenter sonofrojblake quoted an extended comment to a Guardian article that made this case and that commenter Sunday Afternoon provided a link to.)
Theories abound as to what went on behind the scenes. Initially it seemed like Johnson agreed with the poisoned chalice theory and decided that it would better for him to sit this round of leadership struggle out and stake a bid for the leadership later after the next leader was blamed for any crisis that ensued, and thus play the role of the rescuer of the country rather than the cause of its problems. In that scenario, Johnson would have seemed to be a wily strategist, foregoing short-term advantage for long-term success.
But a long and detailed article by Gordon Rayner in the Telegraph says that what happened was that Johnson was going to seek the leadership role right up to a couple of hours before his announcement of withdrawal because he thought he had sufficient support within the parliamentary bloc. But it turned out that justice minister Michael Gove, the person who had been thought to be Johnson’s most loyal advocate, ally and partner in favor of Brexit, who had even agreed to chair Johnson’s campaign and repeatedly said that he was not interested in the leadership himself and indeed that he did not have the skills to be prime minister, had been, along with his wife Sarah Vine, maneuvering immediately after the vote to drain Johnson’s support and win Johnson’s allies over to himself and succeeding in that effort. The final indignity was Gove publicly announcing, without telling Johnson in advance, that he was indeed running for the leadership and that Johnson should not be the leader. Apparently a stunned Johnson took a quick informal poll and found that many of his supporters had indeed defected and thus he had no alternative but to announce his withdrawal.
The media are treating Gove’s behavior as a spectacular act of treachery and backstabbing, some even suggesting that this was a long term plan by Gove that began with him converting Johnson from his earlier broad support for European Union to becoming an advocate for leaving, because Gove knew that the charismatic Johnson would be more effective than him in winning the Leave vote and thus removing Cameron, leaving the path open for him.
As Rayner writes:
With two hours to go until the launch of Mr Johnson’s leadership bid, Mr Gove, the man who was supposed to be making up the “dream ticket” with him, had not so much stabbed him in the back as run him through with a pikestaff.
Mr Johnson’s most loyal friends were apoplectic. One described Mr Gove’s behaviour as “utter treachery”, and suspicions quickly surfaced that Mr Gove had intended all along to use the popular Mr Johnson to win the referendum vote before ambushing him at the last moment.
“Gove is a —- who set this up from start,” said one, bluntly. Could they be right?
The British media are having a field day with this story of intrigue and Shakespeare analogies abound. Johnson as Julius Caesar and Gove as Brutus seems to be the most popular. The key role of Gove’s wife also suggests the pair in the role of the Macbeths with Johnson as Banquo. One could also think of Gove’s behavior as akin to Iago, though Othello has no suitable role for Johnson. Gove is fending off accusations of treachery, saying that though he was reluctant to seek the leadership, he felt compelled to do so because he belatedly realized that Johnson was not up to the task. Robert Mackey has a good roundup of the reactions and the reputations of both Gove and Johnson are taking a pounding (see the gif with the penguins).
If the supposed devious long-term plan that is being attributed to Gove is correct, then this reminds me of nothing less than the excellent 1990 British series House of Cards, the inspiration for the current and in my opinion inferior US knockoff, in which an often overlooked, uncharismatic, lower-level politician (superbly played by Ian Richardson) schemes his way into the prime ministership by masterfully bringing about the resignation of the prime minister and outmaneuvering his rivals who consistently underestimate him until it is too late.