These are interesting times in which to re-read, as I just have, John Fowles’s great 1965 novel The Magus. Its central character, Nicholas Urfe, finds himself at the whim of Maurice Conchis, a wealthy trickster who creates a spectacular shadow world where nothing is as it seems. Urfe, his pawn, never knows what to believe, who to trust, what is truth and what is lies.
This is precisely where Boris Johnson has us. In this humiliating period of champagne-fuelled dilettante rule by an amoral, narcissistic prime minister, The Magus’s twisting plot is all too apposite. One line in particular leaped out at me. A pampered aristocrat, watching peasants labouring in a turnip field, remarks that: “It is beautiful that they are they and that we are we.” Writes Fowles: “For him even the most painful social confrontations and contrasts, which would have pricked the conscience of even the vulgarest nouveau riche, were stingless.”
In two years, Johnson has undone two decades of work by the Conservatives to reshape their image as a modern, meritocratic party that is in touch with and on the side of ordinary Britons. Once again it looks like they are they and we are we, and that their conscience is unstung by this fact.
It should perhaps come as no surprise that the Tory rebellion against this entitled buffoonery has taken full flight in Scotland, where politics is an earthier pursuit and considerably less in thrall to the egos and privileges of those who occupy the upper tiers of the class system.
It may be that our tolerance of bullshit is simply set at a lower threshold than, say, in the south-east. Johnson’s popularity is now in freefall in England, but that is not the case north of the border – here, it has long had no further to fall. Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson was on to him from the start and had no intention of ever giving him room. On Wednesday (13 January), the party’s current leader, Douglas Ross, became the most significant Conservative voice to call for the Prime Minister to stand down over his flagrant breaches of the Covid regulations he imposed on the rest of us.
All credit to Ross – he has form for sticking to his principles, having resigned from the Scotland Office over Dominic Cummings’s infamous road trip in 2020. Credit, too, to his team at Holyrood, which has publicly supported his position. The truth is that the Scottish Conservatives long ago ran out of patience with Johnson and his slapstick approach to government. For them, he is the worst possible prime minister in almost every way imaginable – what he is, what he represents, how he behaves, how he “governs”, and what it might all mean for the very existence of the UK.
“It really started with the Cummings situation,” said a senior Scottish Tory of the party’s brewing rebellion. “There was then great concern around the Owen Paterson affair, and now this. We are getting communications from voters, party members and supporters expressing their anger and frustration at the PM’s conduct. This week, we basically had to choose our leader, it was a question of loyalties – the Scottish one or the Westminster one. Douglas’s statement calling on the PM to go was symbolic of the view among the MSP group, and so we all decided to row in behind him.”
One immediate consequence of this week’s events, say Tory sources, is that it is “inconceivable” Johnson will speak at the Scottish Conservative Conference in March – which would be the first time the UK party leader has been excluded from the occasion and a major embarrassment to Downing Street.
If the PM remains in office, it is difficult to see how fences can be mended, particularly following Jacob Rees-Mogg’s incendiary dismissal of Ross as “not a big figure”. One Scottish frontbencher felt this would actually play in Ross’s favour: “I think privately Douglas will be quite delighted by that. You couldn’t come up with more of a pantomime villain, more of a Victorian throwback than Rees-Mogg.”
Another senior party figure said: “The really interesting question now is the future relationship. If Boris goes quickly then it doesn’t matter, but things will be much more difficult if he doesn’t. But I think he’ll be gone within the month.”
The row might suggest that the Scottish Conservatives are heading towards breaking away from the UK party, a step long favoured by the influential MSP Murdo Fraser and others. But there still doesn’t seem to be much appetite for that course of action in the near future. “We wouldn’t want it to look like we’ve run off in a huff – and Nicola Sturgeon would have a field day, claiming we’d declared independence from London but won’t let Scotland do the same,” said a party insider.
With the Brexit albatross around his neck, and with Scottish Labour showing signs of intellectual renewal under Anas Sarwar (and Keir Starmer overseeing a Westminster comeback), Ross has a fight on his hands to keep the Tories in second place in Scotland. Johnson’s unrelenting contempt for basic decency is the last thing he needs on his plate. All the more reason, then, for the Scottish Tory leader to hope that the PM takes his advice and quits sooner rather than later.