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10 June 2022

Why Tory leadership contenders should wield the knife against Boris Johnson

The claim that direct challengers to a leader never win the crown is a myth.

By Philip Collins

He who wields the knife never wears the crown. How often have you heard this political cliché over the past week? This is fast becoming the standard explanation for why no member of the cabinet dares finish off what 148 anti-Boris Johnson rebels have started. Anyone ambitious for the top job should wait until someone else does the deed. Hence, everyone waits and nobody acts because it apparently makes no sense to go first. This is the thought-cliché of the hour and it needs to be said that it is total and complete nonsense.

The absurdity’s tip-off is the mock-Shakespearian locution. Ask a political veteran for the source and they will say it’s Macbeth, or Hamlet, or something. Actually, it’s Heseltine, one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known tragedies. Michael Heseltine coined the phrase, not in 1990 when he challenged Margaret Thatcher, but in an interview with New Society in 1986 when he left the cabinet over the Westland affair. Here is the extended form the story always takes. Heseltine was the politician who dared to tell the truth about Thatcher’s increasingly deranged tenure of office. He failed to become prime minister precisely because he was the assassin. The treachery was a direct cause of the failure.

This is, in point of fact, the most arrant historical rubbish. For a start. Heseltine went on to become deputy prime minister under John Major. It’s not as if his treachery had no beneficial consequences at all. He got rid of a prime minister he loathed and secured promotion into the bargain. He who wields the knife becomes second-in-command.

Furthermore, it is quite wrong to suggest that the reason Heseltine failed to get the top job was because he was the man who had forced the issue. He failed to get the top job for a much more conventional reason. It was because, as an avid pro-European, he didn’t have the support of enough people in the Tory party. Heseltine was never likely to be the next Conservative leader. He calculated that, by turning assassin, he was likely to increase his chances. He acted in defiance of his own maxim.

Maxim, though, is overstating the point. Indeed, it is hard to think of a single instance of a politician to whom this apparent maxim applies. The obvious recent example was Boris Johnson, who resigned strategically from the cabinet and let it be known that he was a gun for hire to shoot Theresa May. Going further back, Margaret Thatcher herself proves the Heseltine doctrine is nonsense. In January 1975, it was Thatcher who had the courage to challenge Ted Heath’s leadership of the Conservative Party. Far from damaging her changes, her boldness seemed to confirm Thatcher as a leader-in-waiting. She beat Heath convincingly on the first ballot and then knocked him out on the second.

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It is at least worth testing the opposite thesis: that he who wields the knife is more likely to wear the crown because, by judicious use of that knife, he proves he has the stature to wear the crown. Or she, if Liz Truss is the one to dare. This revised version might not be quite as economical a line, but it’s a lot closer to the truth. There is certainly a lot to be said for it now. The often-stated problem with each of the putative candidates to replace Johnson is that none of them have the due gravitas. I am reminded of a remark attributed to George Osborne when he was asked how he intended to acquire the grandeur to be chancellor of the exchequer. “I’m going to do it by becoming chancellor of the exchequer,” he said.

The same applies, if only they had the right mixture of courage and imagination, to Truss, Rishi Sunak, Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid. We are living, sadly, with the Dominic Cummings legacy. The Prime Minister’s former chief adviser has turned tail and now styles himself as his former boss’s number one enemy. But, inadvertently, Cummings has saved him. The advice to assemble a cabinet of such pitiful calibre has given Boris Johnson his escape clause. Who else is there? Are not the alternatives all pygmies? Well, not if one of them dares to act as the assassin. Suddenly, that assassin would grow. They would become worthy of the job they sought by being seen to seek it.

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This is, for example, the best hope for Sunak. After the scandals earlier this year, he has been left looking wet, head-boyish and pathetic. Sunak should have resigned, as a matter of principle, when he was fined by the police for attending a lockdown party. But, more cynically, he should have resigned because that was the screamingly obvious self-interested thing to do. Sunak could now be the man who did the right thing. He, rather than Jeremy Hunt, could be the focus of anti-Johnson discontent. Instead, he is feebly tweeting his loyalty while privately complaining about how awful everything is. It is hard not to conclude that he isn’t a man made of smoke, totally out of his political depth. He would have been well-advised to keep that green card and use it to go and do something lucratively boring in Silicon Valley. Unless he is prepared to act.

The same applies to Truss, Zahawi and Javid or, indeed, any other member of the cabinet who might care to say in public what they say in private. Their treachery would be greeted as a relief that someone at the top table had finally owned up. There are, after all, already 148 knife-wielders in the Conservative Party. Yet the feeble cabinet ministers are hiding in plain sight pretending that there is any truth in the silly cliché that they will not wear the crown.