Steve Tuckwell, the shiny new Conservative MP for Uxbridge, was very keen to remind voters a few days ago that he was not Boris Johnson. “First thing, Boris Johnson’s name is not on the ballot paper; mine is,” he told journalists, admitting a win in the outer London constituency would not be easy.
Johnson, who tendered his resignation in a fit of pique after the Privileges Committee found that he had wilfully misled parliament, has since congratulated Tuckwell on his win via Twitter. But is there a hint of something else there? A feeling of vindication? Is he kicking himself, wondering if he should have stayed and fought for his seat? The Privileges Committee report recommended a 90-day suspension for Johnson, which would have triggered a recall petition in his constituency and a by-election.
Some believe that if Johnson had stood, his scandal-strewn record would have led to a Conservative defeat. Even though he had gone, the shadow of his departure remained – as well as other issues plaguing voters after 13 years of Tory rule. But the Conservatives managed to turn the by-election into a de facto referendum on the extension of the capital’s Ultra Low Emissions Zone (Ulez), a daily charge imposed on the most polluting cars. The green policy to tackle climate change and air pollution in London was received badly by Uxbridge residents, many of whom rely on cars for work and felt penalised during the cost-of-living crisis.
As the mayor of London from 2008-16, there’s an argument that Johnson would have been the perfect candidate to go up against Sadiq Khan and Labour over Ulez. So did he miss a trick by not standing?
Not necessarily. Firstly, could Johnson really have run a single-issue campaign after so many failures in office? His earlier success in Uxbridge predates the litany of failures and rule-breaking that defined his premiership. His popularity has plummeted since 2019 and pollsters suggest Sunak has benefited by distancing himself.
Secondly, as mayor, Johnson was the architect of Ulez back in 2015, for implementation in 2020. Though Khan brought the scheme forward by a year, Johnson would still have been left exposed to the charge of hypocrisy.
Thirdly, even if Johnson had won, how long would he have lasted? He left parliament in a fury after refusing to hand over his phone and official documents to the Covid-19 inquiry. Pressure is being placed on the chair, Heather Hallett, to take legal action against him. Is Johnson hiding something? And is remaining outside of politics his best hope of damage control?
Nevertheless, Johnson will wonder if a recall election would have allowed him to remain in parliament. For many in his party and outside of it, this is karma for a man who has consistently escaped accountability.