New Times,
New Thinking.

Boris Johnson’s options are narrowing as the Tory mood shifts

The former party leader William Hague has said that a no confidence vote could be called as soon as next week.

By Zoë Grünewald

The heat may finally be getting to Boris Johnson, as sources say he has begun a ring round of colleagues, promising jobs in exchange for their loyalty. The former Conservative leader William Hague told Times Radio a no confidence vote could be called as soon as next week, the outcome of which remains uncertain.  

Yesterday the former Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom joined the dissenters, and Johnson’s own ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, has publicly told Johnson to explain why his partygate fine did not breach the ministerial code.

The walls are closing in and Johnson’s usual approach – putting his fingers in his ears and humming until everyone leaves him alone –  is no longer working. This time, the calls are coming from inside the house, and his usual fall guys can’t take the blame.

Johnson has already survived a raft of political and personal scandals throughout his career. Last week the Times called him a “greased piglet”, a term David Cameron had previously used to describe Johnson and his infallible knack for wriggling out of trouble. 

But the last few days have shown that some of that grease has rubbed off. The science minister, George Freeman, shattered the illusion of Johnson’s resilience yesterday, when he admitted that he didn’t know whether Johnson could survive a no confidence vote.

Importantly, he issued an eyebrow-raising reminder that Johnson had never stood as “the patron saint of virtue” and that “the people knew who they were electing”.

This comment is revealing. The Tories are not interested in integrity because it wasn’t a political necessity when Johnson won the leadership bid. Elected to “get Brexit done”, Johnson’s duplicity and slipperiness seemed a more successful approach for dealing with the obstructive EU than Theresa May’s earnestness and diplomacy, which had left parliament gridlocked and the public thoroughly exhausted.

Now, the mood within the Conservative Party has shifted, and the Tories are wondering how voters will react as Johnson’s half-truths are turned on them.

With the Wakefield and Tiverton by-elections looming, the Tories will finally get a tangible understanding of how partygate could affect them at a general election. Some suggest it would be wise to wait for the outcome of these before pushing a no-confidence vote, to see the extent of the damage.

But it’s a nail-biting moment for Tory MPs in red wall seats and minority constituencies. Should the by-elections reveal a withdrawal of support for the Tories under Johnson, many more could lose their seats at the next election, even if a new leader is chosen afterwards. If the sting of partygate does run that deep, Johnson’s active supporters should worry about how their constituents may view them, too. A vote for a new leader, and nailing their flag to that mast early, could maybe save them.

They face a tricky political choice: defy their leader and feel his wrath should he survive, or risk their own seats. It reminds me of a line from The Wire: “If you take a shot at the king, you better not miss.”

Whatever happens next week, perhaps we can agree on one thing. It is certainly quite therapeutic, after years of wriggling free, finally to watch Johnson squirm.

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