Boris Johnson is the nation’s id. That is what one of his MPs once told me delightedly, on a day when the would-be world king was riding high. In the grey, stolid world of politics, he was an expression of our emotional appetites, of chaos, of instinct. And the people of this country loved it.
This was, I hardly need tell you, a long time ago. Today the Prime Minister finds himself the victim of another id: that of his own party.
It is the id — the instinctive, emotional heart of the Conservative Party — that is responsible for the vote of confidence in Johnson that will be held tonight (6 June). To have a vote of confidence at this time is not a cold act of calculation by the Tories. It is an emotional outburst: the howl of pain of a party that just cannot stomach it anymore.
What has happened today does not make sense by any normal rule of politics. That Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers, has received the 54 letters of no confidence necessary to trigger a vote does not mean that Tory MPs have calculated that a vote tonight is their best chance of winning the next general election. Johnson’s party is behind in the polls, yes, but not irrecoverably so. There is also no obvious leader who would be a better prospect on this front. “The Tory party is so screwed that it has no better options than Boris,” a Tory MP told me this morning, and a Tory MP I would describe as a Johnson loyalist at that. “And yet Labour could still lose the next election. Hurrah for politics.”
Today’s vote is also not about policy. Johnson does not have a major policy position which has enraged the Conservative Party, as happened in the cases of Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May. This fact largely explains the timing of today’s vote. This Tory rebellion has not been an organised one, and so its timing has not been in the control of MPs. The effort to remove Theresa May was a coordinated revolution, with clear ringleaders and plans for action. This level of organisation occurred because it was primarily a rebellion over policy, giving MPs a cause to unite around. When each MP is acting on their own private emotion, collective action makes less sense. That makes the timing far less predictable, even to the rebels themselves. Today’s vote is an accidental one.
[See also: Boris Johnson is far from safe]
For the rebels, to have a vote today does not make sense from a cold, calculated position. To have the best chance of defeating the Prime Minister, they would have been better off waiting until the Tiverton & Honiton and Wakefield by-elections on 23 June. Wakefield in particular looks set to be a disaster for the Conservative Party, with a JL Partners poll this weekend putting the party 20 percentage points behind Labour in the seat. If and when this drubbing comes, a vote of confidence will be impossible: the Conservative Party’s rules allow for only one a year.
Less likely, but even worse for their own self-interest, the rebels could win tonight. Then the Conservative Party will spend the summer devouring itself at a time of war abroad and impending economic disaster at home. It is hard to imagine that voters will look on this kindly. Remember the pitch Boris Johnson gave us in 2019: Get Brexit Done. Deliver me a majority, he asked of us, and I will get on with the job. What will the country make of a party that cannot govern even when voters have given it a majority of 70? Tory MPs know that they are permitted to rule for two reasons above all: economic competence and competence in governing. A leadership contest against the current economic background would prove them incapable of either.
There is nothing about today’s vote that makes sense, unless it is understood to be the result of a party full of MPs who have hit their emotional breaking point. They are exhausted from defending the Prime Minister’s misdeeds, upset to have been repeatedly put in a morally compromising position, so they have lashed out.
When Johnson arrived on the scene the chaos he brought with him was lauded as political genius. With Dominic Cummings by his side, he removed the whip from several of his party’s stalwarts, took a huge gamble on his parliamentary strategy and an even bigger gamble on calling a general election. It was this instinct towards chaos that won him the largest majority the Conservative Party has had in my lifetime. Afterwards we were told that he had remade the Conservative Party in his own image. This turned out to be truer than anyone could have predicted. Boris Johnson has turned the Conservative Party into a place of chaos. It is that chaos that has brought him to the place he finds himself in today.
[See also: Why Liz Truss is most likely the next Tory leader]
This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man