Tory morale was already fragile after last month’s disastrous local election results. Inflation is persistent; interest rates continue to rise; the public finances remain weak; and Labour’s poll lead is growing. Added to that, Boris Johnson is back in the headlines.
At first sight, Johnson’s renewed prominence is bad news for the government and Rishi Sunak in particular. It was clear from the former PM’s resignation statement that the Privileges Committee concluded that he had, indeed, misled parliament and that he was facing a suspension from the House of Commons of more than ten days. Johnson’s response meant the media narrative moved on, but it remains extraordinary that a former prime minister has been found by a committee – the majority of whose members are Conservative – of deliberately misleading parliament.
Not only has the public been reminded of partygate – the issue that destroyed trust in Johnson’s administration and the Conservatives generally – but Johnson then reminded them of other unattractive aspects of his personality. His resignation statement was Trumpian in tone and method – a series of wild accusations against his opponents, claims of conspiracies and witch-hunts, and an unsubtle appeal to the Conservative base to stand up to a party establishment that he accuses of selling them out. It is not just the members of the Privileges Committee who are the villains but Sunak, too. With Johnson and two of his allies, former cabinet minister Nadine Dorries and Nigel Adams, resigning their seats, three tricky by-elections lie ahead for the Conservatives.
Difficult though this makes life for Sunak, it could prove the best news the Prime Minister has had for some time. As a show of strength, it is unimpressive that only two Johnson acolytes resigned their seats. Nor will this self-purge necessarily be effective: it simply reduces Johnson’s influence. The loss of Dorries from the Commons, for instance, someone who has rarely voted since leaving government, is unlikely to leave the Prime Minister bereft.
Johnson’s strategy – if that is not too grand a word for what appears to be an emotional spasm – seems to be to destroy Sunak and hope that a grateful party will turn once more to him. It is essentially the approach that worked so well for Johnson in 2017-19 against Theresa May. I have always thought it was just about possible for it to work again, but not now he is no longer even an MP.
[See also: The delusions of the Johnsonian right]
The mood of Conservative MPs is grim but they have largely concluded that their only hope of political recovery is to rally round Sunak and hope the economic outlook improves. The logic of their position is to back Sunak; the logic of Johnson’s is to sack him or, failing that, ensure that the electorate does. On this occasion, if you are a Conservative MP in a marginal seat, Boris Johnson is not your friend.
Tory MPs forced to spend their summer weekends trudging the streets of Uxbridge, Selby and Mid Bedfordshire are unlikely to think warmly of those who precipitated these by-elections out of pique. Even successive defeats can be blamed on Johnson and his allies, not on Sunak; a legacy of the Johnson era, not a foretaste of a general election wipeout.
Johnson’s power within the Conservative Party is diminished but he still remains a threat. This forces Sunak’s hand. The Prime Minister is not by nature a combative figure and has frequently sought to reach an accommodation with a man he evidently considers contemptible. But compromise is no longer possible. He is in a political fight to the death and has to be prepared to land some blows. Sunak – by arguing that Johnson wanted him to act improperly by overruling the House of Lords Appointments Commission on his honours list – is finally doing precisely that.
Not before time, some of us would argue. Luke Tryl, a former Conservative special adviser and the UK director of the campaign group More in Common, recently observed that “particularly in more Blue-Wall focus groups you increasingly hear a frustration (from voters who like Sunak) that the PM won’t ‘stand up to Boris’ and that this risks making him look weaker”.
If Sunak wishes to embody “integrity, professionalism and accountability” – the words that he used after becoming Prime Minister – he cannot equivocate. Jacob Rees-Mogg – sorry, make that Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg – has said that blocking Johnson from standing as a parliamentary candidate would provoke a civil war. Perhaps it would, but allowing Johnson to stand again – in view of the findings of the Privileges Committee and Johnson’s reaction – would be spineless. Sunak should make it clear that there is no question of Johnson returning and that the Conservative Party has moved on. It badly needs to do so.
Of course, Sunak’s position would be stronger had he taken a tougher line earlier. Ministers have struggled to justify why a former prime minister who resigned in disgrace was allowed a resignation honours list. That the list was published just before the Privileges Committee findings is damaging for trust in democracy. The suspicion is that a grubby deal was intended but unravelled. That is what tends to happen to transactions with Johnson.
Sunak does not have entirely clean hands. But he could yet salvage some credibility if he is willing to be ruthless. And, should he prove to be the person who ends Johnson’s career, he would at least be doing the country a considerable service.
This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out