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Dear Prime Minister . . . the art of an epistolary execution

The most effective way of dispatching an unwanted prime minister, it emerged this week, is not a confidence vote but death by a thousand papercuts: an attack of resignation letters that started off drawing a little blood and a wince but culminated in the end of a premiership.

The onslaught of parliamentary and departmental stationery addressed to Mr B Johnson (still) of 10 Downing Street revealed a hitherto under-examined role in the UK’s notoriously unwritten constitution for the written word. Only, though, if it’s on the headed notepaper of underlings and former toadies as they turn on their boss.

Two major cabinet figures walking out on Tuesday evening set the ball rolling, for sure, even if Rishi Sunak’s own letter as he exited the Treasury was deemed a bit of a mess by many. But as the hours built to a fever pitch of political drama, it was the relentless blitz of letters from departing ministers and PPSs that, through sheer numbers, reduced Johnson’s authority to rubble.

Each new missive was like another knife blow from Murder On The Orient Express, the crime of regicide shared among scores of inky-fingered assassins.

What is so peculiar, however, as US observers of this epistolary execution pointed out on Twitter, is that so many of the letters were so bloodless given that they proved, en masse, deadly.

What is the formula, then? Well, most MPs stressed the newly urgent demands of a conscience, but with an odd emphasis on how great it had all been up to now.

Generally, a literary critic would be disappointed with these cliché-laden salvos. It’s always “with a heavy heart”, isn’t it? We can only hope that the severance package for outgoing ministers, which has been totted up at more than £400,000, may perhaps go some way to lightening the sorrow currently weighing down so many.

A Twitter feed, @ResignWell, set up to rate each letter for style, praised outgoing courts minister James Cartlidge for the “Gilbert and Sullivan rhythm” of his opening line but castigated him for a mangled third paragraph. Harsh but, as the PM might say, “Them’s the breaks”.

His colleague Victoria Atkins, ex-justice minister, has earned a footnote to this chapter of British history with her use of dancing metaphors for a general lack of ethics under Johnson: “I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values,” she wrote.

Simon Hart, former Welsh secretary and a late departure from the cabinet, was admirably concise and all-too-accurate, from the public’s point of view, when he wrote, “There was never a dull moment”. A chatty style did him credit, even if his random capitalisations did not: “I have never been a massive fan of Ministerial resignations being the best means of forcing change.”

Each letter was, of course, swiftly tweeted, leading to some delightful speculation as we waited for Downing Street to respond. Who knew we had a trade envoy to Morocco before he resigned, and why was the steamed up photograph of his letter so illegible? Perhaps he was tweeting from the hammam.

Special mention must go to the resignation letter that triggered the entire endgame — sent from the desk of the aptly named Chris Pincher, the MP who finally brought down Boris Johnson’s premiership. The former deputy chief whip gave us an opening line for the ages, with echoes of Daphne du Maurier and pregnant with all the disasters that have occurred since he wrote it: “Last night I drank far too much.”

As political reckonings go, a flurry of ritually insincere protestations may not compare to the grandiose and legalistic spectacle of, say, the January 6 hearings in America. But the letters seem to have got the job done. Yours appreciatively, etc.

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