Westminster life has its own unexpected but often telling rhythms and coincidences. Around midday on 31 January, a few hundred yards from the House of Commons chamber where Boris Johnson would soon defend himself, there was a very different political gathering. MPs, both Labour and Tory, were sitting in the beautiful 12th-century St Margaret’s church to remember the life of a proud trade unionist and front-bench politician.
Jack Dromey, from working-class London Irish stock, was a key organiser in the Grunwick dispute, a lifelong campaigner for the underprivileged and a front-bench Labour MP for more than a decade. A feminist, he would often describe himself as Mr Harriet Harman (his wife).
It was a profoundly moving occasion. His children spoke brilliantly. So did Gordon Brown, in uncharacteristically relaxed form. Tony Blair read. Mozart and Bach helped with the music. Sitting not far apart, the Leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, sat and reflected. There was plenty to reflect on: this service was a celebration of Jack, but also of all those who go into politics, from all sides, for the very best reasons. It was a reminder, to put it simply, that politics can be a noble profession.
But on that day of bright winter sunlight, there was an unavoidable shadow hanging close by. For there are other kinds of politics. The Sue Gray report had landed in Downing Street. Boris Johnson was shortly to get up in the house to tell the country: “I get it and I will fix it.” Fixing it, however, so far seems likely to mean sacking little-known civil servants and giving himself more power through a fresh prime minister’s office. Starmer, in his best parliamentary performance I have seen so far, accused the Prime Minister of taking the public for fools and tore into his dishonesty.
I have found Johnson personally charming and amusing many times in the past. But at almost exactly the same time as he was hosting his parties in Downing Street, having a high old time lecturing the rest of us, I was burying my father.
We did a good job for him – poems, a piper. But it was just a very few of us, standing outside in a churchyard in the wind: we were unable to hold our own service inside the church where he had been an elder for more than 50 years and he never had the proper send-off he richly deserved. And so, as I sat in St Margaret’s in Westminster, I felt sad about that, and the more I thought about the parties, the angrier I felt myself becoming. That doesn’t much matter, except that so many millions have similar stories or worse ones.
It is now down to the conscience and guts of Conservative MPs as to whether they will take this further, and send enough letters in to the 1922 Committee of senior backbenchers to trigger a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister, and then, if he loses, a leadership contest. It’s easy to see why they would quail. Johnson is a formidable, alpha-male albino gorilla who will fight, fight and fight again to save the leader he loves (clue: he discovers him most mornings in the shaving mirror).
He will use every tactic, clean and dirty, to cling on. This would not be a neat, quick or surgical removal of a prime minister. But if Conservative MPs don’t move against him, despite so many complaints about his lying, they will surely find there are more scandals and more trouble ahead. It will never be glad confident morning again. There are plenty of decent Conservatives out there who know this. If they don’t get together and move, then they will sully their party for a long time to come. That might be – that is – in the Labour Party’s interests. But it isn’t in the country’s.
A Tory leadership contest is coming – that’s the sense in the parliamentary party – but there are more twisting, choked, switchback roads to come before we get there. There is a strange vacancy, a misty nothingness, about what happens next. And it won’t be filled until there is a plausible replacement leader. Boris Johnson is such a big figure, such a vivid personality, that even in the winter of his disgruntlement Tory MPs find it hard to imagine the world after him.
Challengers to Johnson don’t want to break cover until the letters are in. Tom Tugendhat, a brave outsider and former soldier, has done so already in an interview with Times Radio. But most are stuck in a double bind. Until they reveal themselves, their colleagues can’t imagine the post-Johnson world, and are less likely to send in letters and provoke a contest – which needs to happen if they’re to declare. So the party, and the country, wallow in the doldrums.
Rishi Sunak is the obvious front-runner. He and Johnson pinned themselves together, in a co-authored article in the Sunday Times, as jointly determined to press ahead with the unpopular National Insurance rise. That, by the way, was a fascinating move that showed the Prime Minister’s weakness. To survive, Johnson needs the right – and the right is vehemently against this tax rise. The one senior Tory with the courage to tell Johnson to go publicly, David Davis, has proposed the abandonment of the NI increase, a zero rate of VAT for fuel, and the freezing of council taxes in order to stave off the coming standard of living crisis (which is really better called a “can’t pay my bills crisis”).
Other Conservative right-wingers who have been in to see Johnson in his study have made similar demands. For Johnson, in the middle of all this, to publicly dismiss them as he did implicitly in the Sunday Times article is quite something. Either he’s sure he is safe (which I don’t believe) or he had to do this, short term, to keep his Chancellor by his side.
But Sunak knows, surely, that in the longer term he is probably finished in Johnson’s eyes. He has been slow to support him over recent weeks and parsimonious in any words of support – unlike Liz Truss, the Foreign Secretary. Johnson listens attentively. He bears a grudge. If his authority is revived, he will sooner or later take his revenge on Sunak. The Chancellor is looking just a little boxed in right now.
In the end, Sunak may not stand. He might conclude that it is too early in his career and the atmosphere is peculiarly toxic; and if he gives it a little longer, he is bound to get a brighter crown. Meanwhile, the most formidable possible replacement for Johnson, as Stephen Bush rightly noted in the last issue of this magazine, is not in the cabinet. It’s Jeremy Hunt. He is the Conservative politician Labour MPs would fear most.
A former health secretary, foreign secretary and leadership challenger (he lost to Johnson in 2019), Hunt has already accumulated some impressive supporters. He has been discreet. He hasn’t been out attacking the besieged Johnson, but, since you ask – yes, I think he would stand.
Hunt has problems. He has few, if any, enemies, but the right of the Tory party thinks he is too Remain-y, too centrist, even too male and white. Hunt has done his best to make his peace with Brexit, arguing that if he knew then what he knows now, he would have voted to leave. He would presumably play in any contest on his experience as foreign secretary at a time of European crisis, and on his grasp of detail throughout the pandemic.
But as the Boris Johnson experiment reminds us, what matters is character. Hunt, as an experienced, calm, equable figure, uninterested in feuds, looks well placed right now to rally his party. That he is not likely to take revenge on anyone, perhaps paradoxically, makes him stronger.
When the Tories do get rid of a leader, they often go for someone who is almost the opposite. Thatcher was in every respect un-Heath; Major was un-Thatcher; the chirpy Cameron was the opposite of the saturnine Michael Howard; prim, dogged May was a kind of rebuke to Cameron; riotous Johnson was about as un-May as it is possible to imagine. In 2022 Hunt is the obvious un-Johnson.
Although he has suffered a recent family bereavement, Hunt must know that now is his moment. He has kept his head down so far and is surely looking for allies. There are certainly possibilities out there. Could they include Sunak?
Who will the Tory right pick? That’s a much more open field. If you believe the ConservativeHome website polling, then Truss remains hugely popular with members, and her vehement support for Johnson is, in its way, also an appeal to the wider party. But does she have the number of backers she needs in the parliamentary party? Right now, I am told the answer is no. There are numerous other possible leaders, not least the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, who proved himself his own man when he walked out of Johnson’s cabinet the first time round.
Most of the rest of the cabinet are sitting tight. They know they are there because of Johnson and they know his vengeful instincts. I do not believe the Prime Minister’s favourite film is Jaws, as some say. It must be The Untouchables – recall the scene in which Robert De Niro lectures his “cabinet” on teamwork while swinging a baseball bat.
Westminster opinion about the Prime Minister’s future is as consistent as an overweight drunk on a skateboard trying to negotiate the pyramid of Giza. In late January Johnson was “certainly” finished. In the days before the publication of the redacted Gray report, he was “certainly” safe. I don’t believe it. The anger of constituents being reported by Tory MPs, and bubbling back through focus groups and opinion polls, has barely relented. The letters triggering a vote of no confidence may go in soon. It is not certain, of course, that Johnson would lose the vote; but if he survived it, his would be a wounded administration. Until there is a new leader, it’s hard for the government to move in any direction.
There are other troubles beyond the tax rise. In Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon has promised to reveal in the “coming weeks” her plans for a new independence referendum before the end of next year. How does a Johnson administration, with almost every Scottish Conservative parliamentarian having declared against him, deal with that? The range of other policies, from obesity strategies to the treatment of animals – now stuck in parliament for want of a reliable majority – grows by the day. Johnson has lost the support of so many backbenchers that his freedom to introduce any fresh radical measure is now cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in.
Foreign policy is no easier. Is President Macron likely to respond more helpfully to Priti Patel on the migrant crisis in the Channel as he observes Johnson’s troubles? Cue knowing Gallic snigger. Is Truss likely to get a breakthrough on the Northern Irish protocol from Brussels in these circumstances, or will the other side hang back, hoping for a British retreat as Johnson’s authority declines?
Then there’s the big one: the threat of imminent war in Ukraine. Johnson supporters say it would be wrong to change prime minister in these perilous circumstances. He visited Kyiv on 1 February, and Truss, who was due to accompany him before testing positive for Covid, is promising new legislation to crack down on dodgy Russians in London. That all sounds important and exciting. Weird thought: could Vladimir Putin be the man to save Johnson’s job? Well, perhaps not. Johnson’s Tory enemies argue that the Russian crisis underlines the need for a new, credible British leader, and soon. The Wehrmacht didn’t help Chamberlain.
In the end, it’s all about authority. Belief. Credibility. A prime minister must be able to look his colleagues in the eye, order action, and watch change ripple out. If he can’t do that, what’s the point? You don’t need to be sitting in the grandeur of St Margaret’s, thinking about good men – in my case, my father and Jack Dromey – to feel that politics is at a grubby low point. This is the Tories’ problem. It is patriotic, not partisan, to say it is now their job to clean it up. And fast.
This article appears in the 02 Feb 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Going Under