I should be more grateful to Boris Johnson. This week may seem like a strange time to make that statement but, honestly, there is one Johnson decision from which we have both benefited and I think I should acknowledge it.
On 29 October 2019, with a general election imminent, Boris Johnson offered to return the Conservative whip to ten of the 21 Conservative MPs who had voted to block a no-deal Brexit 56 days earlier. I was one of the 21 but not one of the ten. Short of a miraculous victory as an independent (and I gave it a go), my parliamentary career was over.
Had Johnson offered to return the whip to me, it would have put me in a dilemma. It was true that I had very substantial doubts about his suitability as prime minister, the wisdom of his Brexit policy and the desirability of a Conservative majority at the next general election. One might think that such views would have been incompatible with being a Conservative parliamentary candidate. On the other hand, I loved being an MP, I was very fond of my constituency and there is a respectable argument for strategic patience. The wheel might turn and were I still an MP I might be able to play a constructive role in moving my party away from populism. I am not critical of those of my former colleagues – whose doubts about Johnson’s government were not as deep as mine – who took this view.
I think I would have taken the former course and rejected the offer of returning to the parliamentary Conservative Party. By that point, I had had enough of the “Get Brexit done” nonsense and really did not want to be associated with it. But it would have been an agonising decision and I might have had moments of regret. Johnson spared me from that by not giving me the option. He also spared himself from the risk of having an additional awkward and disenchanted parliamentary colleague. It was the right decision for both of us. For that, I am grateful.
Perhaps I would feel differently if, having won his majority, Johnson had transformed himself into being an exemplary prime minister, but he didn’t. In the week in which Johnson accepts the Metropolitan Police’s conclusion that he broke his own lockdown laws, it is yet again a very good time not to be a Conservative MP.
What do you do if you are a Conservative MP? Try to force Johnson out, I would say, but that looks unlikely to succeed – he would likely survive a no-confidence vote. You could defend him if you can stomach that, but this will not do you any favours with your constituents. Keep quiet? You can try that for a while – as most MPs are currently doing – but your constituents will want answers and lots of them know your email address.
The problem is that this sort of thing keeps happening. If you become an MP, especially a Conservative MP with a Conservative government, you know that you will have to defend unpopular policies. That goes with the territory. But with Boris Johnson’s government, you frequently have to defend decisions that raise questions of integrity and propriety.
Proroguing parliament; Dominic Cummings’ trip to Durham; threatening to break international law; not enforcing the ministerial code when the Home Secretary was found to have breached it; the mysterious funding of the Downing Street refurbishment; defying the House of Lords Appointments Commission when awarding a peerage to a donor; prioritising the evacuation of pets from Afghanistan and then denying it; attempting to change the parliamentary rules to protect Owen Paterson; and, now, breaking lockdown rules. Not every single instance has excited the public but a pattern has emerged. And, by and large, Conservative MPs have to defend it.
At least backbenchers can maintain some distance, perhaps rebelling now and again. Ministers have to condone it all. So, on Tuesday evening (12 April), Twitter timelines filled with cabinet ministers proclaiming that breaking lockdown rules is a serious matter, that the Prime Minister was right to apologise, that he needs to get on with delivering the people’s priorities, that there is a war on – and expressing their full support for Johnson. In the event of the Prime Minister receiving any future fixed penalty notices, it will be curious to see if cabinet ministers come up with new declarations of support or simply retweet old ones. It is all so demeaning.
If it is bad enough as a Conservative MP, and even worse for a minister, the situation for a minister with specific responsibility for the rule of law or the enforcement of the law is even more difficult. The Home Secretary, policing minister and Attorney General all appear to have been excused issuing supportive tweets, although Dominic Raab, who swore an oath to uphold the rule of law when appointed Lord Chancellor, happily obliged. It is to David Wolfson’s credit that he has resigned as the justice minister in the Lords on rule-of-law grounds, just as his predecessor did on a different matter. Finding a respected replacement will not be easy.
Our politics becomes grubbier, our standards lower, our institutions weaker. The problem with making a rogue your party leader is that you end up with a rogue government and a rogue party. Who would want to be part of that?