Was it a cynical, dirty tactic that might – in the end – just about work? Or was it the final miscalculation that will finish him off? Boris Johnson’s smear about Keir Starmer and Jimmy Savile was meant to get us all talking about something other than lockdown knees-ups. So far, it has worked; witness this very paragraph.
It was a wild lashing-out by a man desperate to deflect public anger. No politician planned for what happened on the streets of Westminster on 7 February, when a mob menaced Starmer and David Lammy. The Prime Minister will presumably now, having landed a blow, distance himself from the distorted, howling faces of the gobbing mob, from a protest made up of a weird mixture of right-wing conspiracists, anti-vaxxers (reportedly including Jeremy Corbyn’s brother Piers), and deranged souls for whom the misspelt word “pedo” is the satisfactory rhetorical answer to everything.
Johnson’s original attack on Starmer in the Commons, however, could be the verbal hand-grenade that blows off his own arm. Granted, the many eminent Conservative MPs and commentators who have attacked him for it include long-term enemies. But the voices of decency were heard loudly across the Tory party. And they know fine well that, apology or not, this kind of thing will keep happening under Johnson. This could be the incident that triggers the final batch of letters for a leadership contest.
Weirdly, I suspect Johnson would now welcome an early fight for his job. Both whips working to contain the revolt against him and some of the leaders of that revolt believe that Johnson would probably win a straightforward back-him-or-sack-him vote of Tory MPs right now. But in another couple of weeks’ time, when the short parliamentary recess ends, and perhaps after a fixed penalty notice has been served against Johnson by the Metropolitan Police, the balance might tip.
In the short term – as was the case at moments during the Gordon Brown years – No 10 is working to survive day to day, then week by week. Most immediately, Johnson has been trying to bind in his most dangerous rival: the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Almost everything now depends on Sunak. He is the man of the moment. Ever since Johnson put his name to a joint newspaper article defending the National Insurance rise, profoundly unpopular among Tory MPs, it has been clear that the short-term balance of power has shifted.
As Johnson has been wallowing, Sunak has been rising. Worried about energy prices and energy security? Sunak is pushing for fast movement on oil and gas licenses in the North Sea. Cost of living crisis? There is a Sunak package. Tax and spend? Sunak is coming out ever more clearly on the hawkish, post-Thatcherite end of the argument against Johnson’s populism, refusing spending on the NHS, for instance, until more so-called taxpayer value is achieved. And those awful things Johnson says? Sunak, in all honesty, wouldn’t have said them.
Is he now more popular than Johnson in the Conservative Party? Is he doing better in leadership polling across the country? Well, ahem, since you ask… One doesn’t need Johnson’s hypersensitivity to potential rivals to decode it all. Can it be long before Johnson finds himself quoting Harold Wilson, no less, from May 1969: “Let me say, for the benefit of those who have allowed themselves to be carried away by the gossip of the past few days, I know what is going on. I am going on.”
Is he? Sunak, in Tory terms, is becoming the man for all seasons and all the party. He is polite, easy, clever. With his old Treasury mucker Stephen Barclay now Johnson’s chief of staff, he is positioning himself, after the high-spending pandemic years, as the natural Conservative the party yearns for.
There are right-wing Tories who don’t buy this, or him. But what happens next is very much in Sunak’s slender hands. Johnson will offer him a promise of support as the next leader, in return for total loyalty now. Sunak – fastidious, a team player, no bare-knuckle fighter – would find such an offer attractive.
And so it is – with one teeny drawback. Sunak cannot trust a word Johnson says.
If the Chancellor shakes and hesitates to strike, seduced by that seductive crocodile smile and those “like me” eyes, then one morning, sooner or later, I fear the crocodile will waddle next door and eat Rishi up, crunch, crunch, crunch, all the way from his immaculately designer-shod feet to his wide and no doubt slightly surprised grin.
As ever, these leadership fights are all about character – and that lonely moment of truth. One anti-Johnson Conservative told me on 6 February: “If Rishi resigned this afternoon, he would be prime minister by Friday. But he won’t…”
The more immediate question is: will he talk, and to whom? Jeremy Hunt, who is in many ways (apart from his original hostility to Brexit) uncannily like Sunak as a candidate leader, would like the Chancellor to come in with him. And, no doubt, vice-versa. It is now imperative for all Westminster journalists to hang around every nearby bar and restaurant until the two are spotted together.
Meanwhile, the wait for a contest goes on. During the recess, which began on 10 February, a fuller version of the Gray report, the Met and whatever anti-personnel devices Dominic Cummings still has secreted about his person, will hang in the air – or erupt into headlines. Even then, Johnson could still win a confidence vote. If he doesn’t, Sunak knows that in any contest, his chance of emerging as prime minister depends upon who joins him in the last two. He’d prefer to fight Hunt than Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary, who might still beat Sunak among the wider Conservative membership.
I’m getting ahead of myself. What would continuity-Johnson mean for the country? An underwhelming reshuffle; promises of a slightly new structure in Downing Street; and even the appointment as head of communications of the gregarious, genial Guto Harri, a man tough enough to stand up to Boris Johnson and who adores him. None of this really means the government would feel any different. If Johnson doesn’t have the party properly behind him – and right now he doesn’t – it’s over.
In a fascinating thread of tweets, Nikki Da Costa, No 10’s former head of legislative affairs, has explained how the gears of government will grind to a halt as Johnson’s position weakens. Civil servants and other departments push back more against No 10, forcing the Prime Minister to work much harder to get what he wants done, so he can do less, and so on…
Meanwhile, Britain faces a brutal economic crunch. So far the policy solutions to this seem feeble. Northern Ireland? Scotland? Glance to the world stage, and it is the French president, not the British prime minister, who goes to Moscow to speak to Putin about peace and war.
“Forward,” Johnson apparently cries, and, “I will survive.” But at last, the reported preference of his much-abused wife for a happier, better-funded life away from the spotlight, and his own enthusiasm for trousering large sums on the lecture circuit might come into play. Whether we get to this – what you might call Johnson’s cash-and-Carrie epiphany – depends upon whether Rishi Sunak is intent on ending this extraordinary episode in the history of Whitehall.
If Sunak is determined, he will inherit a world of trouble, and then run a very different kind of government. In the Treasury, they say he is brilliant at and pores over detail, but is less good at grand strategy. Well, it’s grand strategy that may be called for now. And in the days ahead it’s again up to Tory MPs and their consciences: was smearing Keir Starmer and exposing him to a menacing mob one jape too far?
This article appears in the 09 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Sunak's Game