“Nobody told me I was in charge.” That is what Boris Johnson defends, as he clings to power. As the investigation into Downing Street parties nears its end, I’m not sure which is worse – the idea that he intentionally broke his own door-locking rules, or that he was out of control. its staff. “Operation Save Big Dog” should probably be renamed “Save Johnson from Himself”.
The usual rules of politics do not apply to this prime minister. Neither love nor lies let him down, because he has the ability to make lasting connections with the public. But the action is wearing thin. On Tuesday, he gave a hangdog performance, his pleading gaze seeking forgiveness from above a crumpled mask. While this sparked some sympathy, MPs were angered by his attempt to blame others: no one told me the drink was against the rules, that was his explanation. The next day, the stellar performer returned to his feisty self, trying to convince his group that he was still the winner.
They are no longer sure that he is. Conservatives who never trusted Johnson are now seeing what happens when he despairs. A rush of policy announcements, dubbed ‘Operation Red Meat’, includes scrapping the BBC’s licensing fees and sending asylum seekers to Ghana – a proposal that has been met with swift pushback. Fast and serious from Accra. And now William Wragg, a senior Conservative, has alleged that Conservative whips are blackmailing Johnson-backed rebels by threatening to remove taxpayer money from the constituency. their nomination. While getting nasty stories into the news is a long-standing strategy of the Whips office, this new allegation takes us into mafia territory.
With its bullying tactics and scandalous revelations, this administration is beginning to resemble the kind of authoritarianism that has made Britons unpopular in some European cities. A flurry of blokes rose, shouting silly slogans and wreaking havoc on the rest of the public. They trash a bar and think they can get away with it. Mr Johnson came to power promising to represent voters, who have been ignored by the arrogant elite, especially EU membership. But he treated those very voters with contempt.
This is why the latest MPs – the so-called 2019ers – have backed Johnson. No matter what, they owe their seats directly to his fierce election campaign: they and their voters are outraged by the blatant bragging of the rules that Downing Street has imposed on the country. A new poll shows that the Conservatives will lose 42 of the 45 “Red Wall” seats to Labor if there is an election now. The main reason is Partygate.
While Central UK MPs worry whether any other leader can sustain Johnson’s electoral coalition, the 2019 ones are signaling that he cannot. He will not be forgiven by voters who watched the Queen mourn her husband alone, the day after the Downing Street fun. The longer other Tory MPs dither, the more they reinforce the impression that their party cannot be trusted.
The defection of a Tory MP to Labor gave Johnson more time. Even the parties that are rehearsing can appear surprisingly uncomfortable about outright disloyalty. The old guard was also haunted by the shadow of Margaret Thatcher who was ousted in 1990. Michael Heseltine was the first MP to challenge Thatcher for the leadership position but was unsuccessful. No serious candidate wants to move first and risk being accused of stabbing Johnson in the front. But they will be secretly grateful that David Davis, the Tory warhorse and former SAS reserve officer, stuck the knife in. “I hope my leaders will shoulder responsibility for the actions they take,” Davis told the House of Representatives this week. “Yesterday he did the opposite.”
Will Sue Gray’s report bring him down? She won’t be able to refute Johnson’s core view – that he thinks the May 20 party is a work event – unless she can prove he’s read emails from senior advisers. Cao says exactly that. But her verdict is unlikely to be favorable, and the planned removal of the No 10 employee is unlikely to appease the party. It is not the fault of his staff that the prime minister did not read his brief correctly and recruited advisers who were afraid to challenge him. A vote of no confidence in his leadership is now very high. If that happens, Conservatives will be more determined to vote for a new leader than let Johnson limp.
However, it is not over yet. Like his predecessor Theresa May, Johnson will continue to hold power even if he agrees with a one-man majority, and the party is unlikely to unify around an alternative candidate. Unless the rules are changed – and discussions are underway – confidence votes can only be held once a year.
Only one thing is certain: while Johnson has completed joining the EU and delivered an impressive vaccine rollout, he has also taken political skepticism to new heights. His successor must be someone who can rebuild trust with the party and the country. This week, Sir Keir Starmer declared that a Labor government would provide “decency, security, opportunity and equity”.
Conservatives need to stop being dull and think hard about who on their bench can deliver those things.
This article has been corrected because an earlier version misrepresented William Wragg, the Conservative MP for Hazel Grove, as Sir.