It was a bright, cold morning in April of 2022, 13 days before the General Election that Prime Minister Johnson had locked in for the last possible moment of his tenure. Could he cling on longer than May had? Frankly, it was looking pretty dicey.
Things had begun so differently: in late-July of 2019, as he'd stood on the steps of Downing Street and uttered the immortal phrase that he would "trample on the brabbles and picaroons of our epoch". Most of the top jobs had been sewn up weeks earlier in leadership election pacts. Dominic Raab had been made Chancellor. Rory Stewart was sent to the Foreign Office, while Sajid stayed at Home.
So it was a shock when his rival in the final two, Michael Gove, was consigned straight to the back-benches – an act of ruthlessness that drew audible gasps from the press gallery when it was announced. By this point the psychic violence between the two men was beyond Shakespeare, Ibsen or Pinter. A whole new genre of political cartooning explored the contrasting contours of Gove's baby-face and Boris' gloomy mug.
Boris had waffled optimistically through the leadership race, where he was kept on his narrow message by fleets of aides. But while he'd campaigned in poetry, he could never find the prose in which to govern.
Increasingly a hood ornament to his own administration, he outsourced almost all of the detail to his ministers. He'd even shelved his own flagship plan to roll back income tax on the 40 percent band, in favour of Raab’s scheme to raise the income tax threshold from the bottom. Raab's agenda to "end consumer rip-offs" had brought us the collapse of BT, then the breaking up of the train companies into tens of even smaller operators buying up individual lines. And Raab's ideas on abolishing the Equalities ministry had finally ended the metropolitan era of May-Cameron Toryism and brought the Culture Wars into the Cabinet, where they generated just as much heat as on YouTube.
In terms of authored policies, Boris' greatest stamp had been on the question of personal morality.
His 31-year-old girlfriend, Carrie Symonds, instantly became a tabloid obsession; her Sloaney frocks sold out as rapidly as Kate Middleton’s. So when the rumours blew in that Lucy D'Ancona, 28, a Downing Street press officer, had also become entangled with the PM, the nation reached an Abdication Crisis moment of moral introspection.
The red tops brimmed with Carole Malone types offering sassy "open letters" to "a woman scorned". Pictures of Carrie in lycra joggers, sipping a Starbucks, heading to Third Space Chelsea, dominated the news cycle for one muggy month in August of 2020. She was offered Bake Off, Love Island, IACGMOOH and Mick Hucknall's Pink Pancakes (a breakout hit of the 2019 Christmas schedules). She turned them all down, but did give one interview to the Times' Rachel Sylvester, in which she implied that Boris was an unknowable loner and had never paid for anything on their dates.
It was a blow, but not fatal. Like Trump, the British public had become inured to any whiff of scandal around the PM because of the sheer quantity of incident that rained down throughout his time in office.
Brexit? That was still thrumming on in the background.
Britain still squatted in a breach birth that had become oddly, numbingly familiar. In the summer of 2019, Boris vigorously set about battening down the hatches for "Clean WTO Brexit", but once Parliament had voted to bind his hands by sealing-off No Deal, none of his backstop threats to Brussels had ever landed.
The PM managed to evade a large chunk of the blame: what with the ten party defectors who had resigned the whip to sit as "Independent Conservatives" days after his election, he could hardly be expected to do much more.
But with the loss of Ken Clarke’s mob, Boris' thin minority government had been slashed to a nonsensical 297 MPs. Paralysis sapped the life from Parliament. Every week, Jeremy Corbyn stood up at PMQs and asked six questions about when he'd hold a General Election. Every week, Boris trounced him in the battle of oratory, and still looked chicken.
For the Tories, there was still one electoral ace in the hole. In Brexit's absence, Gove had been making a sly comeback from the back benches.
After President Trump had lost by a sliver at the end of 2020, the incoming President O’Rourke had mothballed the notion of a quick-n-dirty trade deal. So Gove had made himself the champion of an idea called CANZUK – a free trade and free movement area between the UK, New Zealand, Canada and Australia. Boris had sensed an opportunity to appeal to the aspirations of a monoglot nation, and sold it hard. Gove was elevated to Foreign Secretary, and tasked with making it happen.
It was suddenly commonplace for cab drivers to announce mid-journey that if the Tories won they’d be selling up to live in Queensland: "The wife worked out we could get a mansion for what our semi costs. Sun every day, and they speak English – if you can understand 'em! I tell ya, Brexit or not, he's got my vote."
Britain now had two key issues, which obsessed two quite different classes: immigration and emigration. The old 1970s gag – will the last one to leave the country please turn off the lights – began to circulate in pubs again.