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18 November 2021

David Gauke

Boris Johnson has been a disastrous prime minister – but the Conservatives will stick with him

For all Johnson’s scandals and misjudgements, Tory MPs still believe the risks of removing him are too great.

At some point in late 2016 or early 2017, a cabinet meeting was about to conclude when the foreign secretary made a contribution. “I really think we need to do more to reduce the regulatory burdens facing businesses,” said Boris Johnson. “I have recently been to New York and they have introduced a ‘one-in, one-out’ system so that every time a new regulation is implemented, another regulation is dropped. I think we should introduce something like that here.”

There was an awkward silence before an incredulous Theresa May responded. “We do have something like that here, Boris,” said the prime minister “and we have had it in place for years, except we have a ‘one-in, two-out’ policy.”

The cabinet suppressed their sniggers (or, at least some of my colleagues did) while Johnson blustered “er, um, well, it’s not very well publicised”.

I was reminded of this incident when Dominic Cummings wrote last week that Johnson had not appreciated the consequences of leaving the EU’s customs union until the autumn of 2020. Perhaps this allegation is the consequence of Cummings’s bitterness? It appears not. The Financial Times’ Peter Foster (not a journalist who could be described as being close to Cummings) reported back that he had spoken to others present who confirmed the account. 

It turns out that despite all the claims that the voters knew exactly what they were voting for in 2016 (or, for that matter, 2019), even their frontman did not know what he was voting for.

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In his excellent account of his time as chief of staff to May, Gavin Barwell tells how the government wrestled with the challenge of the Northern Irish border (if our customs and regulatory regimes were going to diverge from the EU, we had to put a border somewhere). David Davis disliked the implications of the situation, but at least he tried to wrestle with the issue as Brexit secretary. In contrast, from Johnson there was “a refusal to grapple with the policy detail” as he “simply refused to acknowledge the problem”.

(Some years later – after Johnson won the Conservative leadership, concluded a Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland protocol, won a parliamentary majority, negotiated the Trade and Cooperation Agreement and now ponders triggering Article 16 of the protocol – he still seems to follow the same approach.) 

Johnson’s lack of understanding of policy details is extraordinary for someone who has risen so high. He is an intelligent man and his incomprehension of what, in Westminster and Whitehall is fairly basic general knowledge, must only be because they hold little interest for him.

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It is one of many weaknesses as Prime Minister and why, when he is going through a rocky spell – as he has been since he colossally misjudged the Owen Paterson case – there is an immediate sense that his end is nigh. On this point, I am not so sure.

It is true to say that Johnson’s relationship with the parliamentary Conservative Party is essentially transactional. He was not chosen to lead the party because MPs thought he would be a good prime minister but that he would win a general election and, on that point, they were right.

If Johnson were to become an electoral liability, he would not find protection from ideological soulmates or close friends (he has neither ideology nor many close friends in parliament). This makes him, it is argued, unusually vulnerable for a Prime Minister who won a hefty majority at his first attempt.

There is certainly disgruntlement over the handling of the Paterson affair with both the 2019 intake and the old guard aggrieved for different reasons. Much of the recent intake’s anger is apparently directed at Paterson and his friends, rather than the Prime Minister who they see as something of the antidote to the old guard. He is fortunate that they have reached this conclusion but he was always likely to get the benefit of the doubt from those who consider that they owe their seats to him.

The coalition that the Conservatives captured in 2019 was an unusual one and it is not obvious that someone else would be able to replicate Johnson’s achievement. He may not be as popular in the polls, but he has an appeal to those who only focus on politics from time-to-time and make up the swing voters in the new swing seats. Removing him comes with risks.

He has been dented by the last two weeks. I am told that some letters have trickled in to the chair of the 1922 Committee and fledgling leadership campaigns are being formed. But the chances of Johnson falling this side of a general election look slim.

It is always possible that a scandal may engulf him. Cummings still argues that “wallpaper-gate” is a danger, and it has been observed that since he was at school Johnson has considered himself free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else. Rules may have been abused, one way or another, in a manner that causes him real problems.  

The likelihood, however, is that for all his misjudgements, scandals and failure to grasp basic details (not to mention his indecisiveness, poor parliamentary performances and lack of vision for what to do with his majority), the Conservative Party will stick with him for now. And that tells us more about the Conservative Party than it does about Boris Johnson.