Perhaps the nicest touch was the handwritten ordinal in the date; Oliver Dowden’s neatly typed, spaced and justified (in the layout sense) resignation letter to Boris Johnson had left a gap for him to insert “24th” next to June, as if he momentarily considered sitting on it for a few days while he saw how things panned out, but then decided to exfiltrate himself sharpish, and certainly before he had to go on breakfast telly. The culture secretary’s entire message – as befits a former PR man – was a nifty exercise in passive aggression and plausible deniability, hinging on the central assertion that “somebody must take responsibility” (but who? Whose responsibility could this mess possibly be?), paying tribute to those who “work so tirelessly” and “deserve better” (not you, you lazy wastrel), and pledging future loyalty (once you’ve slung your hook, mate). As Dear John letters go, it wasn’t so much “it’s not you, it’s me” as “it’s definitely you”.
A resignation letter, of course, is the last place you want to draw attention to your own shortcomings, especially if there’s even the merest suspicion that you might be jumping before you’re pushed. The perfect specimen may therefore include denunciation, wounded feelings, self-righteousness and appeals to the recipient’s sense of ethics and fair play. It may splenetically elaborate all the grounds on which the sender feels hard done by, or it may claim to be acting on behalf of the greater good; it may be wrathful or regretful.
It may be none of these things. Bill Shankly, for example, favoured focus when he submitted his resignation to the chairman of the board in 1974: “Dear Sir, I would like to retire as Manager of Liverpool Football Club as soon as possible and would be grateful if you would take the necessary steps for my pensions to commence.” It was signed W. Shankly. Though Shankly might have learned something about brevity from Richard Nixon, whose resignation letter to Henry Kissinger clocks in at 11 words.
Far more fun, naturally, are letters where you can almost smell the bridges burning. In 1924, when William Faulkner decided that life in government service did not befit a great American novelist in the making, he quit his job as postmaster of the University of Mississippi: “As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.” The grandeur is impressive, but it should be noted that the “demands of moneyed people” had only really amounted to delivering letters on time, or at all – an obligation that Faulkner, who regularly closed the office if he fancied a round of golf, had strikingly failed to fulfil.
Others have had a greater claim to the moral high ground. Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1939 letter to the Daughters of the American Revolution started with self-deprecation – “I have never been a very useful member”, wrote the first lady – before quickly shifting to accusation. The organisation, she declared, had been given “an opportunity to lead in an enlightened way” and had failed by enacting a whites-only performance rule on the African American opera singer Marian Anderson, thereby preventing her from singing at Constitution Hall. Roosevelt then arranged for Anderson to sing in a concert at the Lincoln Memorial in front of an audience of 75,000.
Political resignations are complicated beasts, in that their effects may extend far beyond the quitter. Nigel Lawson’s 1989 departure as chancellor of the exchequer, which revolved around the unwanted influence of Margaret Thatcher’s economic adviser Alan Walters, ceded the post to John Major; the following year, triggered by the immensely dramatic resignation of Geoffrey Howe, Major became prime minister. What’s striking about Howe’s own letter is its sheer detail; running to 17 paragraphs of closely argued commentary on the rights and wrongs of the European exchange rate mechanism and monetary union, its emotional content is confined to respectful sadness. And yet it changed everything.
Will Dowden’s have the same effect? Too early to say, of course, but it feels too insubstantial and transparently self-serving to go down as a turning point in the annals of Conservative history. More interesting to consider is the kind of letter the seemingly immoveable Johnson himself might write should it ever come to it; one can only imagine it as an unholy mixture of faux-Churchillianisms and cod Latin, signed just as the removal men traipse out with a child’s broken swing.