After the storms in Wakefield and Tiverton, the week at Westminster began in deep calm. A hot, somnolent lassitude hung over the Commons. As usual, perspiring, self-important people in too-heavy suits bustled about doing nothing in particular. As usual, Conservative MPs smirked, conspired and planned another assault on the absent Prime Minister. As usual, they didn’t mean now. It is always too soon. It is always too late. The plane trees flopped in a half-hearted wind. Parliament’s summer break is only weeks away. Everyone is tired.
On the other side of Europe, great events continue. Russia massacres shoppers as its meat-grinder military machine lumbers through eastern Ukraine. Russian politicians threaten that the conflict eventually could escalate into a war against Nato. The alliance’s leader says it will put 300,000 troops on high alert.
At Westminster, journalists are told to expect Tory MPs defecting to Labour. Everyone is clear about the numbers. There will be seven of them. Or there will be three. Or there will be one. Nobody is sure of the names. It might happen, but it won’t divert the Prime Minister. Somehow, despite the fury of voters, the air has gone out of an imminent rebellion.
Does this mean that the astonishing by-election numbers don’t matter? That such losses – the Tiverton and Honiton result is the largest ever majority to be overturned in a UK by-election – are, in that dreary phrase, “priced in”? Not at all. Underneath the surface calm, something really big has happened. It has started to look likely that the Conservatives will lose the next general election, that their long hegemony is ending. Although everything in British politics seems familiar, nothing is.
Boris Johnson himself, normally a wily tactician pursuing his own interests, seems in a “sod them all” mood. A worried prime minister would be closeted in Downing Street with his chief whip, summoning ministers and backbenchers for a little inspiration, a dollop of bribery and a teaspoon of menace. But Johnson has been in Kigali, Bavaria and Madrid. A shrewd PM would be sounding pensive and contrite. But Johnson is talking not of a second term but a third, of staying in power until the 2030s. It looks reckless.
Part of his calculation will be that cabinet ministers – despite the example of the outgoing party co-chairman Oliver Dowden, and the suggestion of the former Tory leader Michael Howard (who has written for the NS about why he has called for Johnson to resign) – won’t confront him. They have already stayed so long that they are indelibly marked by his rule-breaking regime.
If they go now, in the words of one leading Tory, “they are rats leaving a sinking ship. And nobody, including whoever takes over from Boris, will want to employ a rat.”
Yes, there will be a move by anti-Johnson Tories to take full control of the 1922 Committee executive and change the rules, or threaten to change them, so there can be a further challenge. But as Steve Baker has made clear, they won’t move until the Privileges Committee has finished its work later in the autumn. If it concludes that Johnson has knowingly lied to the Commons he could be suspended as an MP – something that has never happened to a PM.
Harriet Harman, who is likely to be voted in as chair of the Privileges Committee (Chris Bryant recused himself, having been forthright in his view that Johnson knowingly lied), is a steely MP with little to lose. Of course, there is a majority of Conservative MPs on the committee, but they are not, in any sense, natural Johnson allies. One told me dryly this week: “I think you’ll find that when we report, it’s news.”
Could Johnson survive a suspension? A very senior Tory says: “If that happened, be in no doubt, we would take him out.” But I have heard this before. Rules, schmules.
We must try to imagine the politics of the autumn. Suppose Russia has taken all of the territory it immediately wanted in Ukraine and proposed a ceasefire. Suppose the West splits. Suppose President Zelensky begs for Britain’s, and Johnson’s, continued support for Ukraine’s survival. Suppose, at the same time, doctors and nurses are on strike. Can you imagine the arguments used by Johnson to persuade Tory MPs to let him stay on? I can.
The prospects for anti-Johnson Tory leadership contenders, meanwhile, would be horrible. Ukraine aside, all the problems the Tories face now – the cost of living crisis, inflation, strikes and the lack of a guiding philosophy – would remain. Because the party elected in 2019 has such a large Brexit faction, more centrist candidates such as Jeremy Hunt or Tom Tugendhat would have to tack hard to the right to stand a chance of being selected. On 27 June Hunt voted with the government on the Northern Ireland protocol. But a future leader would also have to cope with an enraged Johnson bouncing around like a cage fighter on MDMA. It isn’t the greatest job prospectus in the world.
I’ve argued before that the Conservative Party is so split it is almost ungovernable. But taking Johnson out of the equation probably makes things worse, not better. Given that, if the party keeps him, it is almost certainly doomed, this makes its chances of survival incredibly thin.
Nothing is certain. Public opinion can turn quickly. But short of a shocking intervention by the Durham Constabulary (and officers, could you please get the hell on with it?), the overwhelming likelihood is that Keir Starmer will be Britain’s next prime minister, leading a minority government or a coalition.
Let’s turn to the opposition. They would inherit a divided, angry country. One member of the shadow cabinet said this to me: “It’s not just about winning a majority. We’ll have to govern, and in really difficult circumstances. We need a big majority, at least a secure one.”
That’s right. The biggest danger for Labour is winning by a hair’s breadth – the best outcome it could expect based on the polls right now – and then collapsing a few months later under the weight of economic crisis. This would lead to another Tory majority in a subsequent election and a return to the long English Conservative hegemony, after a mere blip.
That is why Labour needs the Liberal Democrats. The Lib Dems are on a roll and have a right to expect a say in post-Johnson Britain. The Conservatives know this, which is why they have been so ferociously attacking the idea of a sneaky, underhand, “undemocratic” opposition pact.
That is nonsense, of course. Starmer and Ed Davey have not, and will not, sit down and sign a grand agreement. But why should cash-strapped opposition parties splurge money on seats they can’t win, purely to help the Conservatives back with a majority? After all their rule-breaking, it would be a bit rich for the Conservatives to complain that this was infringing political norms. Both parties will put up candidates almost everywhere. The Labour and Lib Dem analysis of what is wrong is very similar, so, in a general election, their attack campaigns will also sound similar – and amplify each other.
All that Starmer and Davey might need is a quiet verbal understanding about their joint priorities in government. Labour won’t talk about changing the electoral system, which is, in any case, a matter of lively debate inside the party. But that doesn’t mean the subject might not emerge after an election. The Tories have known for a long time that if they stick with Johnson, this could finish them off. But they have, and this is a game of consequences.
I would not be surprised if, on a too-hot week in dozy Westminster, far away from the press, Sir Keir and Sir Ed aren’t starting to mutter about a much more interesting future. I hope they are learning to be ruthless dissimulators. If so, the big change started properly last week, and it began democratically – as it should – in Tiverton and in Wakefield.
By Wednesday, things were moving faster. It became clear that, in the 1922 Committee elections planned for early July, there will be a united anti-Johnson slate, running from the left of the Conservative Party to the right. The possibility of a rule change to allow a further challenge, even before the parliamentary recess, is no longer outlandish. Some Tory MPs believe that the Prime Minister, to avoid being brought down by the privileges committee and the 1922 executive, might even try to announce a general election over the summer. This, for obvious electoral reasons, horrifies many Tories. They are muttering about whether he could be defenestrated first, or whether the Queen might even intervene and decline his request for a dissolution. It is all very wild. But under the surface, torpid calm, this place is.
This article appears in the 29 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, American Darkness