This week it became clear that the most effective way to remove an unwanted prime minister is not a vote of confidence but death by a thousand cuts: an onslaught of resignation letters that began with a little blood and flinching but culminated in the end of a premiership.
An onslaught of parliamentary and departmental stationery addressed to Mr B Johnson (still) at 10 Downing Street has revealed a hitherto understudied role in the UK’s notoriously unwritten constitution for the written word. But only if it’s on the notebook with the heads of subordinates and former servants as they turn on their boss.
Two major cabinet figures who left on Tuesday night certainly set the ball rolling, even if Rishi Sunak’s own letter since it came out of the treasury, many considered it a bit of a mess. But as the hours rose to fevered political drama, a relentless blitz of letters from outgoing ministers and the PPS, by sheer numbers, reduced Johnson’s authority to rubble.
Each new message was like a new stab Murder on the Orient Expressthe crime of regicide shared between a host of inky-fingered assassins.
What is so strange, however, as American observers of this epistolary execution pointed out on Twitter, is that so many of the letters were so bloodless, given that they turned out to be mass-deadly.
What is the formula then? Well, most MPs have highlighted the new urgent demands for conscience, but with a strange emphasis on how great everything has been so far.
Generally, a literary critic would be disappointed by these cliché-laden volleys. It’s always “with a heavy heart” isn’t it? We can only hope that the severance package for outgoing ministers, which was valued at more than £400,000, will perhaps ease the grief currently weighing on so many.
A Twitter feed, @ResignWell, set to rate every letter for style, praised outgoing Courts Minister James Cartledge for the “Gilbert and Sullivan rhythm” of his opening line, but chided him for a damaged third paragraph. Rough, but as the Prime Minister might say, “They’re the holidays.”
His colleague Victoria Atkins, a former justice secretary, earned a footnote to this chapter of British history with her use of dancing metaphors for Johnson’s general lack of ethics: “I can no longer pirouette around our broken values,” she wrote.
Simon Hart, former Welsh Secretary and late cabinet-maker, was admirably succinct and all-too-accurate from the public’s point of view when he wrote: “There was never a dull moment.” His chatty style did him credit, though his occasional capital letters did not: “I’ve never been a big fan of Ministerial resignations as the best means of effecting change.”
Each letter was, of course, quickly tweeted, leading to some delightful speculation as we waited for Downing Street to respond. Who knew we had a trade envoy in Morocco before he resigned, and why vaporized photo of his letter so illegible? Maybe it was chirping from the hammam.
Special mention must go to the resignation letter that caused the whole game to end – sent from the office of Chris Pincher, the MP who finally unseated Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. The former deputy chief whip gave us an opening line for the ages, echoing Daphne du Maurier and pregnant with all the disasters that have happened since he wrote it: “I drank too much last night.”
As political calculations go, a wave of ritually disingenuous protests may not compare to the grandiose and legalistic spectacle of, say, the January 6 hearings in America. But the letters seem to have done the trick. Sincerely, etc.