Defeated in the Commons, Boris Johnson has split his party and revived Jeremy Corbyn

The debate has moved to more comfortable ground for Labour and left Tory MPs wondering if they've been sold a pup.

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Conservative MPs can’t decide whether Boris Johnson, who suffered a humiliating defeat in the Commons on 3 September, is Richard Nixon or Hillary Clinton. On his good days he is Nixon, supposedly reconfiguring the lie of the political land on Remain/Leave lines, and positioning the Conservatives to win long-standing Labour constituencies and achieve the landslide majority that eluded David Cameron. Tory MPs talk about his lightning visits to their constituencies and the passers-by who stopped and asked for selfies. MPs in marginal seats are particularly fond of his promises to spend big on policing and schools. 

But on bad days he is Hillary Clinton, who came closer to winning Texas than any Democratic presidential candidate in 20 years, but also became the first Democrat in 30 years to lose Wisconsin, and with it the presidency to Donald Trump. It is days like that when numerically minded Conservative MPs look at the electoral battleground and ask themselves: where, exactly, is the next Tory majority going to come from?

This has been a week in which Conservatives are more likely to compare their leader to Clinton than to Nixon. A series of indifferent speeches, both in the House of Commons and outside Downing Street, caused alarm among MPs who backed Johnson for the leadership. His prime ministerial qualities may remain a source of considerable doubt but his electoral strengths were supposed to be beyond question.

After one particularly poor performance, a Tory backbencher recalled Michael Gove’s description of Johnson’s gift for pretending to “lose his way in a sentence, like a child in a nativity play. You want him to succeed, and when he does you share in his triumph.” The MP then despairingly added: “The problem is, the crowds outside don’t want him to succeed so he just looks out of his depth.”

Boris Johnson compounded the anxiety by blundering into a confrontation with his own backbenchers over the parliamentary timetable. He first riled them by using the powers of prorogation to suspend parliament in order to pursue an uncompromising no-deal Brexit, then failed to bully his rebel MPs into line with the threat of expulsion from the party. In the end, the government suffered a defeat of 328 votes to 301, after which Johnson immediately told the Commons that he would table a motion seeking a general election rather than accept a bill that would rule out leaving the EU without a deal. He ended up stripping 21 Conservatives, eight of whom had held cabinet rank, of their party membership and the whip. Among this group was Rory Stewart, who ran an enterprising campaign against Johnson for the leadership; Nicholas Soames, the grandson of Winston Churchill; Philip Hammond, the former chancellor; and David Gauke, most recently secretary of state for justice.

The row also served as a gift to Jeremy Corbyn, allowing the Labour leader to recast the political question, however briefly, not as one of Remain vs Leave – an issue on which he is uneasy and the party is split – but one of democracy and procedure, on which he speaks with fluency and confidence and Labour is united. As one shadow cabinet minister put it, “Remain/Leave, Corbyn/not-Corbyn – we can all agree that we hate the Tories trying to sabotage parliamentary democracy.”

Corbyn can resemble a participant in a hostage video when he is called upon to articulate positions with which he does not fully agree: but on the matter of democracy he feels and sounds comfortable. It’s not a coincidence that he delivered several of his best speeches as leader in recent days. The  bitter divisions in the Conservative Party also help ease Labour’s broader problem in the country. As one Corbynsceptic wryly noted, that both pro-Europeans and the Socialist Workers’ Party can cohere around the message that MPs need to “stop the coup is almost certainly good news for Jeremy”. 

All of which adds to the unease among Conservative MPs. Boris Johnson was meant to bury Corbyn, not to give him a new lease of life; to overshadow him in the Commons, not liberate him. The complex negotiation about what must happen with Brexit before a general election is called is a sideshow to the fact that, as one senior Corbynite puts it, “we’re the fucking opposition. We want an election.” That Johnson’s resounding parliamentary defeat puts the UK on an inevitable path to an election only adds to the Tory worry that they have been sold a pup.

But the one thing Tory MPs can’t say is that they’ve been deceived. Whether they realised it at the time or not, when in 2016 the Conservatives opted to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union they chose to write off any prospect of maintaining the electoral coalition that secured David Cameron’s 2015 election victory over Ed Miliband and their only parliamentary majority of this century.

To continue in office, the Tories need to become a different party, with a different support base and a new set of priorities in office. This reconfigured “Faragist” party will have no place for pro-European moderates such as Ken Clarke, it seems.

Purging itself of 21 committed parliamentary opponents of no deal and rushing into an election in which the central issues are ones that tear the existing Tory electoral coalition in two – these are the bargains the party struck by electing Boris Johnson. The problem for Conservative MPs is that it was one thing to gamble on Johnson in the dying days of Theresa May, when the prospect of a general election seemed distant. It is quite another when that election campaign has, in effect, already begun against a backdrop of trauma, expulsions and bitter internal division.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article appears in the 06 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The new civil war