Oxford For Europe
12 June 2022
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The Vote has happened. The PM limps on. How much more damage can he do?
One of Boris Johnson’s great achievements has been to make Theresa May look good. When she won her vote of confidence, much less narrowly then Johnson’s, the first thing she said was that she needed to recognise the discontent driving those who voted against her, and she promised a change in direction. He, in contrast, stepped up the bluster. When asked in Blackpool by Chris Mason how he would respond to the vote of confidence, he changed the subject and boasted about his alleged achievements. He made it clear that he planned to continue as if the 148 Tory MPs who have no confidence in him did not exist. This should come as no surprise: in just the same way he pretends that the 16 million voters who opposed Brexit do not exist. As far as he is concerned, a majority is a majority and of course those on the other side should simply knuckle down and accept that they are beaten. Famously Rees-Mogg, who claims that a one vote majority is enough (‘It is like a French breakfast, one is un oeuf’), was recorded in 2019 telling us precisely the opposite when it was May’s turn.
Is this confidence justified? Or is this a pyrrhic victory which makes it clear to all that his days at Number 10 are numbered?
A Very Dodgy Path to Victory
Let us remember how his victory was achieved. On that fateful Monday, Sir Graham Brady announced that he had received the required number of letters. Johnson then saw to it that the vote would be held within hours, not giving his opponents time to organise or to confer with their colleagues. Sir Graham, to his discredit, colluded in this. Behind the scenes extraordinary pressures were applied. In what was supposed to be a secret ballot, some Tory MPs were allegedly told to photograph their ballot papers to prove loyalty. Others were threatened or bribed: Bob Seely in a moment of frankness admitted that he supported Johnson only because of a promise of extra funding for his constituency, the Isle of Wight. Was he really oblivious to how mercenary this made him look? Then there was the hapless Nadine Dorries. In typically naive and Tiggerish form she let the cat out of the bag: “Conservative party donors have said themselves that they aren’t going to support the party if the Prime Minister is removed. I think a number of MPs in marginal seats need to hear that and need to understand what they’re doing”. As Peter Oborn pointed out, this was the first admission by a member of the cabinet that the PM has sold his soul to a handful of big entrepreneurs, and will always choose to act in their interests rather than those of the public.
And yet despite all this manipulative behaviour the best he could achieve was this extremely lukewarm endorsement from his own party. Where does it leave him? He must know that he could not have won without the payroll vote. MPs on the payroll, ie the cabinet, junior ministers, PPS’s etc are numerous, possible 170 of the 359 MPs. They are expected to show allegiance at every opportunity and to support the Prime Minister in votes of confidence. And of course those who have been overpromoted – the norm rather than the exception – know that if BJ goes then possibly so does their job. Let us assume that in the secrecy of the ballot box a handful of the payroll MPs fail to support him but the majority did. That means that the overwhelming majority, Rory Stewart estimates 75%, of the non payroll vote went against Johnson. He does not have the confidence of his backbenchers, if indeed he ever had. And when he stands up in the House he can look around him and see that all but 211 of the 659 MPs have no confidence in him – so 438, or 66%. This is now bound to include even his former allies in the DUP, who rightly see him as somebody who has thrown them under the bus, and who, in their occasional more lucid moments, must realise that he is about to do so yet again.
The lack of confidence should come no surprise. There are ample grounds. Tory MPs can have been in no doubt of this when they read the damning summary put out by some of their own number, predicting electoral annihilation, or the brilliant letters from John Penrose and Jesse Norman. When John Penrose resigned from a post to which the PM himself had appointed him, he said ‘I’m sorry to have to resign as the PM’s Anti-Corruption Tsar but, after his reply last week about the Ministerial Code, it’s pretty clear he has broken it. That’s a resigning matter for me, and it should be for the PM too’. Yes it should.
A great many MPs are looking at their leader and experiencing buyer’s remorse – to borrow the phrase he allegedly used in an unguarded moment to describe his latest marriage. And the ‘rebels’ are not some kind of organised conspiracy who have already crowned his successor. Had they been so they might well have been successful. On the contrary they are a fairly ragbag assembly of people from all parts of the party, ranging from Tobias Elwood to the hapless Andrew Bridgen. BJ needs to reflect on the fact that he has managed to unite such diverse people against him. Now that they have come out of the woodwork, many will be emboldened to go on speaking out. And perhaps even, we may hope against hope, to vote with their consciences.
William Hague gave a damning verdict: “The nature of their revolt has an important bearing on what happens next. They are not a faction that has been seen off, or an alternative policy direction that has been defeated. They represent instead a widespread feeling, a collapse of faith, that almost certainly cannot be repaired or reversed. For Johnson, continuing to lead the party after such a revolt will prove to be unsustainable”.
A Rocky Road Ahead
So where do we go from here? Following on from the vote each side was able to spin it as a humiliation for the other. The prime minister himself has shown no repentance and no willingness to change. It can come as no surprise given that even on the afternoon before the vote he told the 1922 Committee very frankly, in effect, that he would do it all again. Furthermore, as Nick Timothy rightly pointed out, his rewriting of the ministerial code was timed and calculated specifically to increase his control of the process and make it more difficult for him to be held to account. And the lies continued within minutes of the vote. Why break what, as Peter Oborne reminds us so well, is the habit of a lifetime
Over the last few days he has doubled down on the government’s authoritarian behaviour. The new legislation to override the Northern Ireland Protocol, in flagrant breach of international law, is due to appear next week. The Rwanda deportations are being rushed through, despite the fact that independent legal opinion finds them in breach of the Refugee Conventions (the Court of Appeal has yet to rule), and even Prince Charles has now famously, if not quite publicly, declared that he thinks they are appalling. And then BJ has chosen this moment to announce the resurrection of Mrs Thatcher‘s disastrous and discredited council house sell-off policy. Will these things be seen as throwing red meat to the ERG faction within the rebels,? Or will those one nation Tories who decided to vote with their consciences on Monday feel emboldened and challenge attempts to get new problematic legislation through?
It does seem increasingly unlikely that this man will lead his party into the next election. After his humiliation he will be even more than ever a gift than ever to the opposition parties. Given that the Tories are going to have to find a new leader, the window for doing so and letting that person bed in, and develop authority, is narrowing by the day. By not taking the opportunity on Monday to wipe the slate clean, Tories have indulged in an act of serious self harm.
Cynics might well of course take the view that this self harm is deliberate. While for many MPs retaining their seat is the single highest priority, it is plausible that many, especially those in safe seats, might quite welcome a loss of office in the next general election. Economic prospects are worsening to a degree that a Labour-led government would inherit a set of insoluble problems, for which the Tories will of course try to hold them responsible, meaning that their time in government may well be short
During the interval between now and BJ‘s departure, the party faces several hurdles. Firstly the prospect of two by-elections, which since Monday’s events are more than ever likely to be catastrophic for it. Then there is the report of the Privileges Committee, which however much its Tory majority may try to sweeten the pill, is likely to make uncomfortable reading at best. And it faces the likelihood, I would dare to say the certainty, that BJ will be responsible for further faux pas and that more unpleasant revelations will come out of the woodwork. Who knows, his potential detractors, not least in the Kremlin, may already be dusting off Kompromat and sharpening their pens. So things are not looking good for the party. The 1922 committee may struggle to resist the temptation to shorten or abolish the one-year amnesty which the PM enjoys.
Add to that the opprobrium he has earned in the rest of the world. He and his Tory friends have gone almost deliberately out of the way to upset and insult all our European neighbours. Needless to say the American administration, and indeed both sides of Congress, fed up with his failure to understand or effectively engage with the issue of Ireland. Until Monday it might have been possible to portray him as no more than an individual who had gone rogue. Now, however, the majority of Tory MPs, for whatever reason, have shown their lot in with him. They will be seen as complicit in Johnson’s misdeeds. This tarnishes their electorate and the country as a whole. I wonder how they sleep at night?
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