Imagine a Tory MP was asked, in the abstract, a few years ago, whether they thought a serving prime minister who broke the law ought to stand down. They would all say, without hesitation, that yes of course he or she ought to be gone by the end of the day. We now have a prime minister who broke the law in office and the vast majority of them are saying nothing.
There are various excuses proffered for inaction. It is impossible, apparently, to change the leader in time of war. This is an excuse with just the three massive flaws. First, Britain is not really at war. Second, to the extent that we are involved in the conflict in Ukraine, it is a dispute precisely about whether the rules of democracy and fair procedure should trump the use of force.
And third, if Boris Johnson had ever read The Churchill Factor, the book he supposedly wrote on the Second World War, he would know that changing a leader can sometimes provide exactly the moral fillip needed. In any case, if the war is still going on when the next election is due, are we going to delay it just to spite Vladimir Putin? In 1916, Herbert Asquith was replaced by David Lloyd George. In 1940 Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain, and Margaret Thatcher stood down for John Major in 1990 during the Gulf War. The argument is obviously nonsense.
Next in the litany of lame excuses is that Johnson is a proven winner and that he might be able to recover his popularity. Let’s wait until the May elections, the excuse runs on, and see how bad they are. I’m afraid things have gone beyond that. It is not likely that Johnson can ever really recover from this. In a ComRes poll, 61 per cent of the electorate thought he ought to resign.
But elaborate calculus of advantage is now besides the point. The Conservative Party has an obligation to the nation, not just to itself, and the Prime Minister has been found by the police to have broken the law. There, in that single sentence, is the definitive argument. The sentence to follow ought to be obvious. No party that wishes to retain its self-respect can tolerate such a man as its leader. No party that cherishes the rule of law and the institutions of the nation should permit a man who broke the law in office to remain as prime minister. It’s really very simple and wholly unarguable.
There is no prospect of Johnson doing a voluntary walk of shame. He has no shame. He is going to have to be removed and he will take some heavy lifting. At the moment the weak cavalry of Tory MPs is standing around looking at one another, waiting for Graham Brady to announce that somehow, without anyone serious actually doing anything, the magic number of letters has been reached and there has to be a vote on the Prime Minister’s position. In the circumstances, they all look rather weaselly and pathetic, and it is time that somebody took a lead.
There are two ways in which the most egregious premier in living memory could conceivably be prised out. The first is that his Chancellor should now resign. Rishi Sunak had an opportunity for a tactically astute resignation before the Ukraine crisis. He might, had he gone then, be in the top job now. But he didn’t and now, after a week in which he turned a green card into a red card, he is quite a long way down the road to being finished. But not, perhaps, all the way down. The logic that applies to Johnson applies to Sunak too, who ought now to resign as well. In doing so he would place great pressure on the Prime Minister to do the same. Even if Johnson resisted successfully – which he would – Sunak would at least have done the right thing. Nobody believes he was the source of the culture in 10 Downing Street. A good resignation and a full apology would do him good in the long run.
The second strategy, which should be carried out in concert with the first, is for the phalanx of senior Conservatives to come out, en bloc, and let the Prime Minister know that he cannot soil the reputation of their party like this. The silence of its senior people is notable and, as every day passes, they become further complicit with a Prime Minister who broke the law in office.
From within the cabinet, transparently decent people such as the defence secretary, Ben Wallace, and the Welsh secretary, Simon Hart, could and should enhance their reputations by refusing to serve any longer. But the real pressure needs to come from former cabinet ministers. The list of people discarded by Johnson is, in fact, more impressive than his current cabinet and they ought to come together to make it plain that decency is alive and well in the Conservative Party.
Led by Peter Bottomley, the Father of the House, a shadow cabinet of Theresa May, Jeremy Hunt, David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Damian Green, Maria Miller, John Whittingdale, Damian Hinds, Liam Fox, Matt Hancock, Karen Bradley, Greg Clark, Robert Buckland, Andrew Mitchell and Andrea Leadsom should unite in defence of the rule of law. Tobias Ellwood, the chair of the Defence Committee, who has already spoken out well, should be joined by Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and Ruth Davidson, the former Tory leader in Scotland, who has also distinguished herself by being clear. Johnson would probably refuse to budge even then but a Prime Minister who had lost his Chancellor and all those people, acting as a battalion, would be in the serious trouble that he so richly merits.