Boris Johnson is on the cusp of his own personal Brexit – and he is no Winston Churchill
The point of Boris Johnson was that he was once an election winner. The problem is that all winners become losers, it is just a matter of when. This happened to Winston Churchill in the 1945 general election. And Mr Johnson is no Winston Churchill.
Members of parliament returned to the Houses of Parliament on Monday, 6 June 2022 scenting blood. In the immortal words of the poet John Donne, “never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee”. Yes you, Mr Johnson. It is your blood they are after.
A leaked document now being liberally distributed among Conservative MPs who want to oust Boris Johnson claims that he is no longer an “electoral asset”. Now there is a surprise. It is also being said by his critics (and there are many more than you might think) that they now have the numbers to trigger a leadership election contest. And they almost certainly do.
It only requires 15% of the parliamentary Conservative Party (54 members) to submit a letter of “no-confidence” in Johnson before Sir Graham Brady, the chairperson of the influential 1922 committee (this is effectively the body that represents backbench MPs) must make that telephone call that the prime minister is almost certainly dreading.
Here is what Sir Graham will say sometime very soon: “Prime Minister, I must inform you that 15% (or more) of the parliamentary party have no-confidence in your leadership. I am obliged under the Constitution of the Conservative and Unionist Party (to give it its full name) to institute proceedings for an election as soon as practicable. If you wish to contest that election you will have to let me have a signed nomination form with a proposer and seconder for your candidature once I have announced that an election, and the rules for it, will be taking place.”
At this point, Johnson will know what most of us already know – that this is the beginning of the end.
I suspect most of the country now wishes to see the back of Johnson, but I must caution those who do. Such a contest doesn’t mean he will necessarily lose. Only Conservative MPs can vote in this election (our least-sophisticated electorate), and Johnson starts with the advantage of having a “built-in” vote of all the members of his government. There are 365 Conservative MPs, of whom 132 are “members” of the government. This is often referred to as the payroll vote.
These MPs owe their positions in government to Johnson. They are all ambitious. They all want to be on the winning side. Should any of them wish to vote against him, it would be considered standard practice to resign their post in government before doing so. However, this is a secret ballot among the most duplicitous electorate of them all: anything could happen.
Even if Johnson survived such a contest, this doesn’t mean it would be the end of the matter either. He would have to win most convincingly to silence his critics and to reassert his authority. But he can only win “big” if he runs a credible and convincing campaign, is articulate and can convince his colleagues that he can make everything he touches turn to gold.
This is quite a high bar for Johnson to clear. He is not naturally articulate, and he is chaotic and most of the time unimpressive.
We have been here before. Theresa May as prime minister was even more hopeless than Johnson. She faced and won her own no-confidence vote in December 2018. However, within seven months after the contest she quit. Winning the vote settled nothing. The very same could happen to Johnson.
Make no mistake about it: the level of dissatisfaction with the UK prime minister is perilously close to another Conservative wipe-out at the next election. There is no social group that has been polled in England where Johnson is judged to be honest or trustworthy. His approval rating is now -37%. His unpopularity was reinforced on Sunday, 5 June when he and his wife Carrie arrived for the service marking the Queen’s platinum jubilee. Johnson was booed and slow-hand-clapped by members of the public.
Johnson’s problems aren’t confined to the domestic stage, he is having a hard time in the international arena too. As well as being pretty much a laughingstock on the world stage, his own Brexit deal, which he loudly claimed solved the border issue in Northern Ireland, demonstrably does no such thing even though he boasted it was a “fantastic” deal. But we have come to know that what Johnson says is often the opposite of what he means.
There is justifiable anger within the EU that Johnson is asking to tear up a deal that is called “oven-ready”. The enthusiastic Brexiteer now looks on course for a trade war with the European Union because of his own negotiation failings. The UK economy could not withstand a trade war. This would be economically catastrophic.
Johnson once famously remarked “fuck business” in a clear sign that he has no affinity for wealth creators. Governments cannot create wealth – they can only spend it. The longer he is in office, the more likely it is that a trade war would come about. This is because he has lost the trust of European leaders, and the European Commission will simply refuse to negotiate with a man who doesn’t keep his word. It is now well known that Johnson thinks he is above the law. As Lord Denning, the former Master of the Rolls, once said, in quoting Thomas Fuller, “be ye never so high, the law is above you”.
More bad news
The point of Johnson was that he was once an election winner and some MPs defending him are still advancing this view. The problem with this proposition is that all winners become losers, it is just a matter of when. This happened to Winston Churchill at the 1945 general election. And Mr Johnson is no Winston Churchill.
It was only in early May 2022 that the Conservatives lost badly in the local elections. For the first time in its history, Westminster City Council (the borough where Johnson lives and votes), elected a Labour council. And the Borough of Wandsworth, (a flagship Thatcherite council) went Labour after more than 30 years of Conservative rule. Further bad news is yet to come. There are two parliamentary by-elections pending and the Conservatives are predicted to lose both.
There is a famous picture of me standing next to Margaret Thatcher on her last day as British prime minister. We were watching John Major from the first-floor window at Downing Street. Major was making his victory speech as her successor. This picture beamed around the world. I left Downing Street that night in a state of high emotion. It took a considerable amount of time for me to come to terms with what the Conservative Party (in its collective madness) had just done.
Thatcher was an unquestionable election winner. She won three consecutive general elections. She would have arguably won a fourth. She was massively competent. Johnson is not. She was exceptionally good at being prime minister. It is obvious for all to see that Johnson isn’t. He leads a government without direction or purpose. The government has no economic policy or any sense of direction. This is leaving to one side the dubious awarding of PPE contracts to Conservative donors and Lord Brownlow paying for the redecoration of the Downing Street flat. These incidents are a massive abuse of office.
By any independent test Johnson has failed at every level. Even his highly lauded Brexit withdrawal plan has turned out to be nothing of the kind. The prime minister either did not read his own deal, or blatantly misled us into believing that he had found a workable solution, and this was a good deal for the whole of the UK. If truth be known Johnson didn’t read the deal because he can never be bothered with the details.
Most people who are not good at their jobs get fired. Just give me one good reason this should not apply to the privileged classes? DM
Update: Boris Johnson confidence vote result: Prime Minister wins 211-148.
It is a very bad result for Boris Johnson. No ifs and no buts. Of the 364 conservatives MPs, 148 of his colleagues voted to remove him. This is a bigger margin than voted against Theresa May when she was prime minister: May departed six months after that vote back in 2018. The situation is dire for the country, for Johnson and for the Conservatives. Its leader is thrashing the Conservative brand. He recorded a lower percentage share of the parliamentary vote than either Margaret Thatcher in 1990 or John Major in 1995. It is worth remembering that 160 of the 364 MPs are in the government and can’t vote against Johnson. If they were genuinely speaking their mind and voting as they wanted, Johnson would have been packing his bags in the morning.
The 211 MPs that voted for him are like Turkeys voting for an early Christmas. Boris Johnson has got away with breaking the law. He has got away with lying to colleagues, and most likely Parliament too. This is just the start of a slow burn but inevitably exists. Obstacles are still in the prime minister’s way. On the horizon there are two parliamentary by-elections in Tory seats Johnson is likely to lose. And there is yet to come a parliamentary investigation into whether Boris Johnson knowingly told an untruth to Parliament. What happens if he is found guilty of having done so? He would have to resign then without a shadow of doubt.
There is a message in this for Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer too. If the leader of the Labour Party had more charisma and the communication skills to cut through to the public, Monday’s result would have been different. The Conservatives don’t fear Starmer. He is failing to effectively put Johnson under any significant pressure. He should be doing so week after week. He can’t punch above his weight and lacks inspirational oratory to propel his message beyond Westminster. He should sack his speechwriter and share in the blame for Johnson’s victory. Arguably this is the more significant outcome of this internal conservative crisis.
Johnson will be having a drink tonight, relieved that he had a majority of 63 to stay on. To stay on for more of the same. I doubt the “Trolley”, as his former top aide calls him, is any more coordinated after this vote. Only time will tell.
Derek Laud is Honorary Fellow at Cambridge University’s Lucy Cavendish College, a Visiting Professor at London South Bank University and a broadcaster and journalist.
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