Sometimes in life you see an acquaintance making a terrible mistake, but you know there is nothing you can say. They are determined to do it. You must stand aside and watch it happen. And so it does, slowly, predictably…
The Conservative Party is cheerfully making just such a mistake right now. Nothing this or any other commentator says will have the slightest effect. The mistake is to “move on” from the Downing Street lockdown parties and brief that the Prime Minister is, come what may, now “safe”.
If he is, the Tories aren’t. The hooting derision turned on a woebegone Maria Caulfield, the Tory MP trying to defend Boris Johnson in front of the BBC Question Time audience in Bath earlier this week, was more than a straw in the wind. Conservatives will, of course, blame BBC bias in selecting the audience. I don’t believe it. People around the country feel a mix of anger and contempt, particularly about the lying. After burying my father on one of the lockdown party days, I feel it too.
If that feels too personal, we can always go to the numbers. In the most recent poll by Savanta ComRes for the Independent, 64 per cent of voters said Boris Johnson should resign if he was issued with a fixed penalty notice by the Metropolitan Police, and 45 per cent said he should resign whether or not he got a fine. Among those who voted Tory in 2019, 40 per cent thought he should resign.
To be clear, the war in Ukraine makes it virtually impossible for the Tories to mount a leadership bid right now. I know people disagree, citing the replacement of Nevile Chamberlain in 1940 or Herbert Asquith in 1916. But Johnson is so far having a good crisis. Britain was early to arm and support Ukraine and the Prime Minister is standing shoulder to shoulder with President Zelensky in a way that the latter appreciates and notices at the moment of maximum danger.
The Tories are simply not going to defenestrate him now, even if somebody could find a window big enough. So where is the great mistake?
It’s buried in the natural rhythm and short attention span of British politics. Johnson has made it to the Easter break. Perhaps the 5 May local elections will be so utterly catastrophic for the Tories that a new leadership kerfuffle will emerge later that month, but this is unlikely. People vote for a complex of reasons; it will be utterly impossible to disentangle the cost-of-living crisis and, for that matter, peoples’ views about Ukraine, from partygate. The Prime Minister’s defenders, in other words, will find good reasons to dismiss even poor election results as the consequence of global factors or even Rishi Sunak.
That’s why we have the surreal situation of No 10 still refusing to accept regulations or laws were broken, even as Met police fines are imposed on anonymous staff there. Dominic Raab, who is after all Deputy Prime Minister, says that “of course” the people punished had breached the rules, but for some weird semiotic reason this is still denied by his boss’s people.
And so, cheerfully enough, the caravan rolls on. Johnson tells his MPs at their private party that everything will be all right. (If you are looking for a description of Johnsonism, look no further: those four words are it.) There will be more trouble ahead (another definition, I suppose, of Johnsonism) but on each occasion, the Conservative Party will find another reason to delay the execution. And another. And then, oops, one day it is suddenly too close to a general election, and too late, and the Tories will discover that the derisive middle-class audience in Bath back in March 2022 was actually rather representative.
The mistake has not yet been made. There are other routes out of this. It is still not completely impossible that Johnson receives a fine and decides himself to leave office and make ridiculous amounts of money while having a nice life with Carrie. Oddly, perhaps, I guess he would enjoy the theatre of the moment.
Nor is it completely impossible that enough Tory MPs panic early enough to remove him. But as partygate begins to gather a bit of dust and rust, it’s beginning to look as if the Tory party has already made its choice.
Which takes us to the final possibility — that the Conservatives stick with Johnson and win a big majority under him again. But on what basis, looking at the fall in living standards to come (projected to be the greatest since 1956-57), is that likely? The most influential part of political choice is one’s own personal experience — that trumps boasting every time.
Or could people stick with the Tories because of Ukraine? The war has served Johnson well so far, but as Kyiv looks towards a negotiated settlement the bellicose, egging-on language of London may soon look out of date… or worse still, in the private view of Middle Britain, unacceptably dangerous.