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23 December 2021

David Gauke

The problem isn’t simply Boris Johnson – it’s Tory MPs

The tendency of many influential Conservatives to deny reality did not begin and will not end with Johnson’s leadership.

There is much one can criticise Boris Johnson for as Prime Minister. He has little knowledge or interest in policy detail; he cannot build a strong team; he lacks a strategic vision; he refuses to grapple with reality and make hard choices; his inherent optimism leads to excessive risk-taking; he is too ill-disciplined to stick to rules; and he has a cavalier attitude to the truth. To name but a few. 

None of this comes as a surprise to anyone in Westminster, but these attributes have become increasingly obvious to those strange people who do not follow politics obsessively and make up the vast majority of the electorate. Once he was a cult figure with darts and football fans. He is not quite that anymore

Much of the recent collapse in his popularity is self-inflicted. His approach to the case of Owen Paterson was indefensible, and the various stories of Christmas parties in Downing Street – plus the ludicrous explanations and evasions in response – have undermined trust in the government at a crucial time.

It is tempting to think that all of the government’s problems are as a consequence of the Prime Minister’s flaws. If, at some point, Conservative MPs remove him from office, they will do so in the hope and expectation that his successor will not share these weaknesses.

Up to a point, this is true. Any successor, whoever it might be, will provide greater administrative grip. But what should worry the Conservative Party, and the country as a whole, is that it is increasingly difficult to see how any Conservative leader can confront hard choices while maintaining the support of their backbenchers.

The one single act that appears to have provoked most parliamentary anger is the relatively modest policy on Covid passes. I fear the move is inadequate, but it is certainly undeserving of the comparisons with Nazi Germany policy.

As I argued last week, Johnson is at least attempting to wrestle with a difficult problem – a new variant that is much more infectious and, unless much less severe, will overwhelm the NHS without a substantial policy intervention – which is more than can be said for many of his colleagues. Too often we have seen Conservative MPs fail to address the very significant risks, cherry-pick evidence (Omicron may be sufficiently mild that we will be able to cope but we cannot yet know with any certainty), disparage expert opinion and generally live in the world as they would like it to be rather than the world as it is.

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The problem for Johnson is that even when he is willing to live in the world as it is, he is too weak to force through policies on ungovernable parliamentary colleagues who continue to live in the world as they would like it to be. It is a familiar story for Conservative leaders and not one that is limited to the response to Covid.

Theresa May was brought down by MPs who refused to accept that regulatory divergence from the EU was going to require a border in the Irish Sea or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Johnson, as the foreign secretary, refused to accept the realities; as Prime Minister he put a border in the Irish Sea, denied he had done so and then sought to renege on the deal. None of this caused him much of a problem with his backbenchers until he recently signalled that the government is retreating on its demands that the European Court of Justice has no jurisdiction in Northern Ireland. It was an unrealistic and unreasonable demand in the circumstances, and unilateral action by triggering Article 16 would result in a disastrous trade war. Even so, policy realism comes at a cost in the case of internal party management.

The leading advocate for a hardline (and unrealistic) approach to the protocol was David Frost, who has now resigned as the Brexit minister. Frost was widely loathed within the EU and, consequently, something of a hero for the membership of the European Research Group. His resignation letter, opposing “coercive” policies on Covid and calling for lower taxes (much harder to do thanks to the Brexit he negotiated) will not have done him any harm with that constituency. When it comes to the next leadership election, he is well placed to be kingmaker (or perhaps queenmaker) and be rewarded accordingly, something that is unlikely to have escaped him.

Frost’s responsibilities now belong to Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. Her empire has expanded but she is faced with a dilemma. Deliver a pragmatic deal that breaches Frost’s undeliverable red lines and she is vulnerable to the accusation of betrayal. Blow up the talks and she would be held responsible for a painful trade war.

Whichever course she takes, it would be a surprise if her perception of the attitudes of Conservative members and MPs does not play a part. These attitudes will be of relevance to any candidate who puts themselves forward for the leadership. Rather than explaining some uncomfortable truths, recent history suggests that the candidate that promises to deliver what the selectorate wants – low taxes, a purist approach to sovereignty, and opposition to Covid restrictions – will prevail however hard it will be to implement such policies in practice.  

Johnson’s leadership may be imperilled but the tendency of many influential Conservatives to deny reality did not begin and will not end with Boris Johnson.

[See also: Tory libertarians want to govern a Britain that does not exist]

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