By Mark Connolly
It really is something to behold – like the next chapter of an epic fable whose protagonist never falters, always devising some cunning plan to overcome adversity and pull through. For what feels like the hundredth time in less than three years, the beleaguered commentators and journalists that make up the British media ecosystem find themselves once again uttering those same (now era-defining) words: “Boris Johnson clings on.”
Since January, the ever-unfolding ‘Partygate’ scandal, which found the Prime Minister guilty of breaking lockdown regulations and the ministerial code, has rarely been far from the headlines, forcing Johnson’s allies into ever more ridiculous mental contortions to justify his actions. Many within the party – at least fifteen percent of them – saw through the spin and half-apologies, and submitted letters to the 1922 Committee which governs internal party processes.
And then came the 6th of June: a vote of no-confidence was triggered, the Prime Minister won by 211 to 148, and the whole matter was put to be put to bed. Mr Johnson himself declared it an “extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result.” He might have been exaggerating somewhat. For context, his predecessor Theresa May won her confidence vote by a bigger margin, and even still, within six months she was out.
So now the Westminster establishment finds itself at a strange juncture, in as much as nothing major has actually happened. Johnson remains in post with the knowledge that nearly half of his MPs want him gone; but he remains in post nonetheless. And, providing there are no changes to the procedural rules, there can be no leadership challenge mounted against him for a year, giving him until next summer to regain the confidence of those who voted against him. (But Tory rebels mustn’t mistake this for hope that he might change course: he and his allies see the result as a green light to carry on exactly as before, expressing no desire to placate the rebellious factions.)
There has been some chatter behind closed doors and in the papers about the prospect of a Tory civil war. Though the rebels have lost for now, as former health minister Philip Dunne warned, “it’s not over.” They plan to make life for the PM very difficult, voting against the government in the House of Commons to bring about political standstill. One anonymous rebel advocated “guerrilla warfare,” while another speaking to Paul Waugh of the i seemed sure of success in the long-term: “It’s like a lion chasing a zebra. The zebra may escape but with a gammy leg that will get infected. And he’ll be down in the end.” Similar bellicose rumblings have been heard from Johnson allies as well. One minister is reported to have complained that “Boris has indulged [his critics] for far too long. He needs to stamp his authority and rout those who have caused endless headaches.”
The first shots in this civil war were fired over social media before the vote had even taken place, when Nadine Dorries – Culture Secretary and fiercely loyal ally of Johnson’s – responded to Jeremy Hunt’s call to vote against the PM. “You have been wrong about almost everything,” she asserted, and “you are wrong again now.” She accused him of “destabilising the country,” and of leaving the NHS ill-prepared for the coronavirus pandemic during his tenure as health secretary (inadvertently blaming her own party for criminal public health failings). This was a diatribe so vehement and yet so self-sabotaging that a generous observer may have mistaken it for a genius work of absurdist comedy, the likes of which only Nadine Dorries could produce.
She and the rest of those loyal to Johnson hope to claim victory after the result of the confidence vote. But the rebels have persisted in spinning new narratives – in particular, with appeal to historical precedent. Past confidence votes would suggest that Johnson’s days are numbered. Thatcher, Major and May were all turfed out soon after theirs, either by their MPs or by the electorate. But the basic problem is that historical precedent simply doesn’t work with Johnson. He proceeds utterly undaunted by the expectations attached to the office he holds, or by the procedures and practices which make up the unwritten constitution of this country. Indeed, Boris Johnson’s rise to the top could only have happened in a country whose political ground rules are as vague as Britain’s, allowing him the wiggleroom to act as he pleases.
Tellingly, what did it for Thatcher was that her cabinet turned against her; but his cabinet have provided cover for him for many months, such that, to turn against Johnson now would seem at best peculiar, and at worst deeply deceptive. The fact is that few politicians have clung to power as desperately (nor, it must be said, as successfully) as he has. The idea that he would resign out of principle rather than be forced out is a fantasy, and one with which we should dispense.
We should also get rid of the notion that the Tory rebels are some noble resistance outfit, aiming to wrest the levers of power back and restore honesty and moral principles back to 10 Downing Street. Their aims are far more cynical. It is not necessarily Johnson’s lying as opposed to the optics of his lying that bothers them. Read any public statement from any anti-Johnson MP and you’ll read the same recurrent concern: electability. Tory rebels were under no illusions prior to 2019 about Johnson’s mendacity; it was a flaw they were willing to tolerate, so long as he was capable of winning. To the extent that there is any substantive policy disagreement, it is only that the likes of Jeremy Hunt and David Frost would prefer more austerity and lower taxes. Whatever their reasons, the rebels are certainly not motivated by ‘decency’ or ‘honesty’ in public life.
So what are we to make of the whole affair? Plainly we can say that the situation is not good. The subsequent loss of two by-elections – one in the so-called ‘Red Wall’ in the North, and another in the traditionally Conservative-voting South – have compounded the problem, intensifying calls for his resignation and adding to the growing sense that the electoral coalition which swept him to victory is not holding together. Further down the road, the parliamentary standards committee will conclude whether or not the PM broke the Ministerial Code. A guilty verdict here would only serve to confirm what the public already believes – namely, that Boris Johnson is a liar. And with the resignation of his ethics advisor Lord Geidt, we can probably hazard a guess at what the outcome will be.
However, an optimist may consider Johnson to have been lucky in all this: were the confidence vote to have been held after these by-elections, the result may just have been even closer. It may even have seen him out of office. But circumstances have seen him come out the other side – albeit less credible and less authoritative. The threshold of 54 letters of no-confidence was breached almost by accident, and it would appear that this disorganisation on the part of the rebels may just have saved Johnson’s skin.
Using a wider lens, one wouldn’t be entirely wrong in thinking this all seems rather pointless, somehow infantile, like a reality television spat within the Westminster bubble. The question may even be asked: why should we care? After all, whether Johnson stays or goes, Europe is still engulfed in warfare, political repression and genocide continue in the Middle East, and our warming planet remains set for mass extinction in the coming decades.
But to those feeling disillusioned, it is important to remember the unique nature of the British state. Administrative power is three times more centralised than any other European country, meaning our system if overwhelmingly controlled in Westminster. Unfortunate as it is, the machinations and showmanship of the House of Commons is not a mirage; it is actually the arena in which an overwhelmingly large and comparatively disproportionate amount of our civic lives is coordinates. This problem is compounded by the 80-seat majority for the party of government, which effectively allows Conservative rule by decree, rendering opposition parties irrelevant. All in all, these circumstances mean that Britain – the sixth largest economy in the world and still (for better or worse) a major global diplomatic player – is in the thrall of its Prime Minister. As long as parliament belongs to the Tories, and the country belongs to parliament, this never-ending psycho-drama of intrigue and interpersonal conflict will be essential to understanding civic life in Britain, and our place in the world.
In short, to talk about Boris’ personal popularity is to talk about the big problems like war, squalor and ecological breakdown. And with regards to these challenges, it’s not looking good. The feeling is gradually setting in that nothing is quite working. In the same week that fuel prices hit record high, Britain was forecast to have the slowest growth and highest inflation in the G8 (barring Russia). At a time such as this, it would be comforting to have a Prime Minister at least capable of rallying his own MPs, never mind the rest of the country. Sadly, this is not the case.
Maybe Britain just can’t have nice things.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of the St Andrews Economist.