The cynical nature of Boris Johnson’s relationship with the Conservative Party, and especially with his backbenchers, has been emphasised by the spasm of panic after the debacle of the Chesham and Amersham by-election on 17 June. To lose a heartland seat when the official opposition are on the floor has provoked disquiet among many who thought they had jobs for life.
The excuses came swiftly, and did no credit to the Tory party and to some of its flagship policies, namely HS2, and the proposed relaxation of planning laws. Ministers cannot admit that Johnson is merely tolerated rather than esteemed by many natural Tory voters in seats such as this. He may be regarded as the proverbial breath of fresh air in some Labour areas where intelligent left-of-centre voters feel despair at their own party’s apparent irrelevance, but in seats that have been Conservative forever, he is increasingly regarded as divorced from the party’s values – not just because of his policies, but because of his demeanour.
It was perhaps bad luck for Johnson that this by-election occurred in a seat at the sharp end of the raging debate over planning reform, on the north-west outskirts of London. Ever since the 1930s when, to shore up the core vote, the administration of Neville Chamberlain was forced to design the Green Belt Act, voters in the Conservative heartlands around the capital have been anxious to conserve what remains of the often beautiful countryside close to London.
This was not because Tories were environmentalist before environmentalism was invented, but because they realised more than 80 years ago that their voters liked the rural idyll (even in what was effectively outer suburbia) and would always vote against those who pledged to destroy it.
Beyond the increasingly woke and fatuous rhetoric Johnson had been spouting about a “green recovery” and other environmentalist causes (albeit probably insincerely and much of it apparently to appease his new wife), he seemed to have few points of empathy with the people of this affluent Chilterns constituency.
But it isn’t just the grass-roots who are beginning to tire of his bluster and showmanship. Experienced observers in the party were distressed by Johnson’s clownish performance at the G7 summit earlier this month, and particularly by the attention-seeking parading of his small child, comparing it unfavourably with the more dignified conduct of his fellow heads of government. President Macron was himself inept in claiming that Northern Ireland was not part of the United Kingdom, when Johnson told him that to stop Britain sending sausages to Belfast was like preventing them being sent from Toulouse to Paris. However, seasoned officials and Conservative politicians were horrified that Johnson had the media briefed about the exchange, and thus made it public.
For many of the older generation of Tories, enough has long been enough. By contrast, most MPs put up with Johnson because they see him as their meal ticket, not because of any deep personal loyalty – a quality he neither possesses himself nor inspires in others. If the heartland continues to find fault with Johnson’s interpretation of Conservatism, and he no longer appears to be those MPs’ means of re-election, his currency will be seriously debased.
The G7 summit threw up another comparison that did Johnson no favours. The Prime Minister’s Tory critics were all too clear that such goodwill as Britain, as host nation, managed to spread and such diplomatic finesse as it managed to demonstrate was almost exclusively thanks to the royal family, next to whom Johnson cut an embarrassing figure. The Queen never comments on her prime ministers, but those close to the royal family now routinely say that its members who meet Johnson on official occasions find him lacking in the qualities expected of the Queen’s first minister.
That in itself changes nothing; however, the keen awareness among more senior Tories, especially former ministers, of this rare sense of disappointment perhaps does. Most such Tories have never been reconciled to Johnson as leader of their party, and never will be. Their willingness to criticise him – when they deem the moment has come for maximum effect to be achieved – will be ignited by the thought that they are not the only ones with a stake in the constitutional process who find him a liability and an embarrassment. And aware as they are of the profound ineffectuality of the official opposition under Keir Starmer, they also know that if the embarrassment they perceive in the leadership of their own party – and of the country – is to be ended, it is going to be largely up to them to begin to bring about this end.
The House of Lords will in the coming days debate the government’s decision to renege on the Cameron administration’s promise to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on overseas aid. A measure of the internal opposition to Johnson among what the tabloid press calls his party’s “grandees” will be apparent then. Each time he does something they believe to be profoundly improper – directing that the Queen be lied to about the prorogation of parliament in 2019, or threatening not to honour a treaty whose conclusion he has claimed as a personal triumph and on which he has sought and won votes in a general election – the distaste they feel grows, along with their numbers.
It is a misconception that this dissatisfaction with Johnson is confined to people who supported Remain in 2016. Some Brexiteers find his conduct of office repellent too, and in the months ahead are increasingly likely to say so. Johnson did polarise opinion over Brexit, but that argument has largely moved on. And, ironically, it is he who has helped move it on, to a peculiarly searching question: whether, through his lack of probity, lack of seriousness and lack of what remains of the dignity of his office, he is fit to be prime minister.