A few months ago I received a text from a senior and prominent backbench Conservative MP. The text asked me to sign a legislative amendment that was about to be tabled. I ignored it, assuming it had been sent to me by mistake. The MP then sent a follow-up text. “Not sure this is for me,” I responded – again I assumed that this was a generic text being sent to an out-of-date list. But then came another text as the MP persevered.
This was now getting somewhat awkward. “Don’t you have to be an MP to sign an amendment?” I asked, trying to be tactful. “Yes, I had forgotten,” they replied. “Sorry. Keep thinking you are here…”
I am not going to name the MP other than to say that it was not Sir Graham Brady. Had it been him, I might have kept quiet and waited for the opportunity to drop him a note requesting a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson’s leadership. I am still tempted to chance my arm.
Those who want Johnson removed fall into two camps when it comes to timing. There are those who want to go early, who believe that the evidence of his unfitness for office is clear, that his continuance in office is damaging the reputation of the Conservative Party and his ministerial colleagues and is bad for the country. Some fear that the best opportunity has been missed now that parliament is in recess, the Prime Minister will get some breathing space and, by the time the Commons returns, other matters, such as Ukraine, may have moved the public’s attention on.
The alternative view is that the better chance of defeating Johnson would be after the police investigation of lockdown parties is complete or Sue Gray’s report on them is published or the Conservatives suffer a thrashing in this May’s local elections. One Johnson sceptic told me that even a narrow defeat for the Prime Minister would be a worry because a section of the party would never be reconciled to his removal in these circumstances, causing lasting ill-will and division. It was even suggested that Johnson might stay in parliament and seek a return to the leadership. A no-confidence vote, consequently, might have to wait until it was clear the result would be emphatic.
Clearly, there are fewer than 54 — the number who must submit letters to Brady to cause a vote — who want to move early as no vote has yet been called. Those who want him gone but are waiting for the mood to change in the parliamentary party almost certainly constitute a much larger number but nobody can tell for certain. So Johnson staggers on.
The consequences are painful. Ministers are now routinely humiliated every time they put themselves up for interview. This can often be an occupational hazard for ministers (as I recall only too well) but the sheer number of indefensible positions that have to be defended at any one time (parties, the Savile slur and crime statistics are the current topics) must make all but the most brazen despair.
Most ministers are sufficiently anonymous to be expendable (again, as I recall only too well) but for some ministers reputational damage means damage to the Conservative Party’s prospects. Rishi Sunak should be a major asset at the next election (whether as prime minister or chancellor) but is forced into either loyally defending Johnson, which tarnishes his reputation for integrity and decency, or into putting some distance between himself and his Downing Street neighbour, in which case he is accused of disloyalty. His popularity is diminished either way.
Johnson’s weakness also results in decisions being tactical not strategic — even more so than normal. This week’s appointments to No 10 and the ministerial reshuffle were designed to please the Conservative backbenchers who can keep the Prime Minister in office. The European Research Group will welcome Jacob Rees-Mogg being given the task of trying to find some Brexit opportunities but it is hard to see how this will end well. MPs will initially appreciate having people they know at the heart of No 10 with Steve Barclay and Andrew Griffith as chief of staff and policy director respectively but this will probably result in confusion, blurred lines of accountability and conflicts of interest. This is not a criticism of Barclay or Griffith but it is striking how those who have done the job of chief of staff, in particular, believe that this arrangement will not work.
Then there is policy. Ensuring that even if 54 letters go in (which will surely happen if Johnson gets a fixed penalty notice) he can survive a confidence vote will be the priority. This will mean appeasing the dominant right of the parliamentary party. The Prime Minister has so far resisted calls for a change of approach on tax but he has moved quickly to drop Covid restrictions and the risk of him taking a more belligerent line on the Northern Ireland Protocol is growing.
Meanwhile, the government’s popularity takes a hammering as the benefit of doubt is lost. On any chosen issue, the public assumes that the government is in the wrong, even when it appears to have handled matters well, such as with Ukraine. The longer this unpopularity lasts, the harder it will be to reverse.
Every week that goes by with Johnson still in office deepens the problems for the government and the Conservative Party. Tory MPs have a reputation for ruthlessly disposing of inadequate leaders but their reluctance to do so now will come at a heavy price.
This article appears in the 16 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Edge of War