IF THE conundrum of your job security depending on you sacking a colleague, but simultaneously on keeping him, has exercised the minds of Tory MPs this past week – especially those elected only two years ago by the Red Wall constituencies newly won from Labour with small majorities – it would be no surprise. Because that’s the dilemma they face with Boris Johnson.
In only two years, Campaigner Johnson, whose 2019 ability to reach voters largely gave them their ‘MP’ titles, has morphed into Calamity Johnson: a PM mired in scandals. These arise equally from his ineptitude in basic governing, having created a fractious and dysfunctional No 10 operation reminiscent of an intrigue-riven medieval court, his manifest character flaws – particularly his entitlement-driven hypocrisy in breaching his own lockdown rules and embarrassing policy U-turns – and his undue deference to shrill, unelected courtiers and advisers with debatable agendas.
The voters know it, too. After staying stubbornly in the low 40s for months, despite growing dissatisfaction with the Johnson government’s pandemic policies, in barely a week the Tories’ poll ratings have plummeted to the low 30s. At the time of writing, the numbers would see them losing more than 100 seats.
Simultaneously, Johnson’s personal rating has slumped to an all-time low of -42 (yes, that’s minus 42), rendering undeniable the causal link between the voters’ accelerating disaffection with his party and his own faltering performance as PM, stumbling from one self-made crisis to another, yet unrepentantly privileging himself to disregard the restrictions he imposes on us.
This afternoon’s votes due in Parliament on Johnson’s reversion to Plan B will be crucial. At the time of writing, between 60 and 70 MPs have pledged to vote against, presaging the largest backbench rebellion of Johnson’s premiership. If manifested on this scale, despite the Parliamentary chicanery being plotted to split the Plan B vote into three, Johnson faces either the embarrassment of withdrawing the measures or the humiliation of obtaining approval only on the votes of the Opposition Leftist parties, a move likely to be even more necessary with Sunday evening’s move to Level 4. It’s hard to see how his predicament wouldn’t be exacerbated either way.
Whatever the outcome, talk of letters of no confidence being submitted or prepared to trigger a leadership election is intensifying, although still nowhere near the total of 55 needed to secure a contest. So, what are Tory MPs to do about the Boris who, Mourinho-like, has lost the dressing room?
Assuming the option of shrinking from confrontation, doing nothing and hoping the furore will go away and calm down is unavailable – and in my view it is, because things have already gone too far – they seem to have two possible courses.
The first is, in effect, to fire a warning shot across Johnson’s bows, telling him to up his game or else, and that his vow to stay in post ‘to guide the country to much better times’ without committing himself to any change in his governing style is unacceptable.
Whether that would work is dubious for two reasons. It might temporarily deny Johnson’s still-resentful and thirsting-for-revenge-over-Brexit enemies within the One-Nation EU-phile wing of the Tory Parliamentary Party, the Left in its widest sense, and the Left-‘liberal’ media echo-chamber serving both, the scalp which they so desperately want. But the target of their campaign would remain in place and therefore vulnerable when hostilities inevitably resume.
It would also probably not work even on its own terms because it would require Johnson to change himself in ways that I believe he is congenitally incapable of. Despite Steve Baker’s plea below, I suspect Johnson is in no mood to ‘rescue’ his position, much less apologise for his litany of unforced errors, for which his own personality flaws are largely responsible.
Johnson has never hidden his belief that moral and ethical rules which apply to the majority need not necessarily apply to him. He’s reported to have asserted to a previous mistress that men should not be confined to one woman. Max Hastings, his editor at the Telegraph, wrote that he would trust Johnson with neither his wife, nor, from painful experience, his wallet.
Tom Bower’s unauthorised biography of Johnson published last year is replete with examples, both in his personal and political lives.
Leaving Johnson in office but corralled would require a thorough clear-out of his Downing Street team and its replacement with a more professional operation fully capable of policy formulation, delivery, and party management. It would need an end to his carefully cultivated trademark clownish buffoonery which, though suited for campaigning, is incompatible with the humdrum, difficult business of statecraft and governing, where a PM must choose between equally unpalatable options and risk unpopularity – something to which Johnson is almost pathologically averse. I suspect he would either agree and then renege, or even refuse outright. It’s just not in his DNA.
Which leaves the nuclear option of ditching him, at which point the real aim of the campaign against him merits closer examination.
Despite their claimed reasons, the anti-Johnson, mostly unreconciled anti-Brexit Remainer/Rejoiners of the broad ‘liberal’-Left, along with their equally mostly London-Leftie media amen-corner, are unlikely to be promoting Johnson’s ousting solely from concern either about governance standards and public probity, or the adverse effects of anti-Covid measures, or his hypocrisy in personally disregarding them.
They didn’t much object to Blair’s style of sofa government; on Covid, they tend to back Starmer in demanding that Johnson’s lockdown measures are even more authoritarian and longer-lasting; and they were broadly sympathetic to Sky News’ Kay Burley and Beth Rigby when both were suspended last Christmas for their own rules breaches.
In my view, they’re out to defenestrate Johnson, not only in revenge for the Brexit for which they will never forgive him, but also in what they see as an essential first step towards reversing it. The supportive intervention of arch-Remainer Lord Adonis speaks volumes in that respect.
I’d also suspect they enjoy the tacit support of the Continuity-Europhile wing of disaffected senior Tory MPs, especially the former ministers and One-Nation grandees out of favour since Johnson’s ascendancy and Brexit, grouped around Jeremy Hunt and Theresa May, and their allies in the media.
The optimum strategy for Tory MPs convinced that Johnson’s leadership has run its course, outlived its utility and can now only drag the party down, but also anxious to prevent at all costs a paleo-Remainer coup, should first be to submit those letters to the 1922 Committee.
In the ensuing contest, they should support only a candidate likely to recover a poll lead sufficient to retain their seats by undoing much of the damage Johnson has done and addressing problems such as illegal immigration, which he has shied away from tackling.
That criterion must exclude Rishi Sunak, tainted by his complicity in Johnson’s reckless expansion of debt, taxes and the size and reach of the state, as well as compromised by both his ongoing closeness to prominent figures in the political media and his Goldman Sachs history and connections.
It must also, without question, exclude a second tilt at the leadership by Hunt, whom many would plausibly assume to be a willing proxy for a Theresa May still resentful at her ousting by Johnson and the collapse of her backstairs BRINO.
And it must, above all, exclude the perpetually serpentine and permanently-on-manoeuvres Michael Gove. A Gove now distrusted beyond credibility yet who still appears allowed – thanks to Johnson’s own lackadaisical aversion to detail and innate laziness – to exercise, via his chairmanship of Cobra, undue control over national Covid policy.
Recent events suggest this might extend as far as co-ordinating, potentially even colluding, with the hard-Left authoritarian devolved Scottish and Welsh administrations to escalate England’s Covid restrictions to a more draconian level which, only days or even hours before, Johnson himself had declared to be unnecessary.
The best bet, or least bad choice, currently looks to be Liz Truss, but it would be necessary to back her up with a deputy PM committed to completing Brexit properly, including triggering Article 16 if required to rectify the deficiencies of the Northern Ireland Protocol, and with the determination and heft to overcome the Remainer-driven resistance in Whitehall.
An opening, possibly, for Steve Baker, now openly accusing Johnson of creating a miserable Covid dystopia, re-launching the Conservative Way Forward pressure group with the slogan ‘Make the Conservative Party conservative again’, and already thoroughly discombobulating the Guardian with the prospect.
If the joint campaign by the regressive Europhile ‘liberal’-Left and its media echo-chamber to oust Johnson, not out of concern for probity in office but as a first step in reversing Brexit, succeeds only in replacing him instead with a robust, genuinely conservative leadership who’d complete Brexit and possibly even abandon Johnson’s disastrous eco-obsessions, that would be a double-gain.
Vote down Plan B, and get those letters in to the ’22.