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By Sticking with Johnson, the Conservatives have Picked an Epic Fight with Themselves

The party now stands for nothing and is plummeting in the polls – but still cannot conceive of life after Boris Johnson, says Jonathan Lis

Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks at a reception of Falklands veterans on 7 June 2022. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Images/Alamy

By Sticking with Johnson, the Conservatives have Picked an Epic Fight with Themselves

The party now stands for nothing and is plummeting in the polls – but still cannot conceive of life after Boris Johnson, says Jonathan Lis

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The most extraordinary element of the vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister is that it actually happened.

After Boris Johnson’s landslide victory in December 2019, the prospect such a vote from his own party less than two-and-a-half years later would not have been credible.

The result of that vote – 41% of Conservative MPs demanding his immediate removal – would have seemed still more fanciful. Here, after all, was the man who had delivered many of those people their seats. Now, more than two-fifths of them no longer believe that he is fit to lead their party or country.

But it did happen. And far from it being the end of the matter – as Johnson and his supporters insist – the drama is just beginning. For the Prime Minister may technically have won and be safe from further challenge for another year, but the die has been cast: not just for Johnson, but quite possibly the Conservative Party as well.

The Verdict on Johnson

The first thing to say about Boris Johnson is that he brings it on himself. A man who had all the power, opportunity and luck in the world has squandered it all through the sheer force of his own personality.

Nobody foisted the ‘Partygate’ scandal on him. Nobody demanded that he break his own laws and then lie about it. The self-inflicted wound was hubris. A man who has spent his entire life doing whatever he likes and getting away with it found that eventually he would go too far.

The motivation for the vote of no confidence matters. Many right-wing Conservatives dislike the Government’s statist approach on taxation and financial assistance, but this, fundamentally, was not about policy. Rebels covered all wings of the party, from left to right and Brexit to Remain. They were not judging Johnson’s politics but his character.

Even now, the Prime Minister is unable to take responsibility.

In the letter he sent to backbenchers ahead of the vote, requesting their support, the closest he came to self-awareness was the single line: “Some of [the] criticism has perhaps been fair, some less so.” He framed the entire scandal of lockdown parties as “I know… I have come under a great deal of fire”. In other words, he still considers himself to be the victim. In an address to Conservative MPs later on, he reportedly said that he would do the same again.

Johnson’s lack of honour and integrity is, by now, not a matter of debate. He has shown over many years that he cannot and will not change. The public considers him a liar and wants him to resign. The only question that remains is how long he has left in office.

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It is inconceivable that the Prime Minister can lead his party into the next general election, still less a victory. It is not simply that the public has definitively made up its mind about him, and that after voters have made such a judgement – as they once did with John Major, Gordon Brown and Theresa May – they do not reverse it. It is that 41% is an unsustainably large proportion of dissidents in his own party.

In 2019, May resigned less than six months after winning considerably more support in her vote of no confidence. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher, with roughly the same amount of opposition as Johnson, lasted two more days. Even Major won his 1995 vote with 66% approval – and suffered a landslide election defeat two years later.

Picture any workplace in which 41% of employees vote to oust the boss, after which he pledges ‘business as usual’. Then factor in the need to win a national election. How can Johnson possibly seek the confidence of the electorate when he can’t even persuade three-fifths of his own MPs?

This was perhaps the worst outcome for Johnson: spared the immediate humiliation of removal but instead subjected to the slow draining of power. His party does not want him and nothing on the horizon indicates that the situation will improve. Indeed, Conservative opposition will likely harden and grow more organised. The Prime Minister has lost his authority and credibility, and soon he will lose his job.

The Verdict on the Conservative Party

The vote was also the worst possible outcome for the Conservative Party. One of its problems is directly associated with Boris Johnson and will go with him: having a deeply unpopular and untrusted leader.

Johnson is unquestionably Labour’s greatest electoral asset. If he had been dispatched, it is possible that some of the Conservative polling would have rallied. Now, the party has exposed itself as profoundly divided and led by a man two-fifths of its MPs despise. It has condemned itself to months of stagnation and decay as it considers what to do next. With each day that Johnson remains in office, he will drag the Conservatives down with him.

And yet, politics is always more important than one individual. If the Conservatives’ troubles were limited to their leader, they would have gotten rid of him comfortably on Monday. Their most serious problem is that this goes much further than Johnson.

The first key issue is that they are set to lose a general election. Granular polling data indicates that almost all of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ seats won in 2019 would now fall back to Labour in a new vote.

The Conservatives are defending two seats in by-elections on 23 June: Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton. They are all but certain to lose both seats. There are dozens of Red Wall seats in the north and Midlands such as Wakefield, and dozens of ‘Blue Wall’ seats in the south and west like Tiverton. If by-elections were held in any of them they could well fall. What is the Conservatives’ plan to change that?

The second issue is that the party stands for nothing – and the problem is not simply its drift and confusion on policy and ideology.

Consider that Johnson’s backbenchers applauded him as he drove through the economic destruction of a hard Brexit, the unlawful proroguing of Parliament, and the proposed breach of international law by overturning part of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Then there were the repeated failures to tackle COVID-19, systemic corruption and delays providing personal protective equipment, and a series of policy choices which caused tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. There was the chaotic evacuation from Afghanistan – one of the worst foreign policy failures since the Second World War.

Any one of them could and should have brought Johnson down. But none of them ‘cut through’ with the public – and therefore with MPs – until Partygate.

A party with principle would have put its foot down long ago. There is even evidence that the vote of no confidence was subject to undue influence, with the Conservative MP for the Isle of Wight, Bob Seely, declaring that he backed Johnson after receiving assurances of extra council funding: the definition of ‘pork barrel’ politics.

For the Conservatives, everything is about electoral calculus. The main reason so many MPs have turned on Johnson is not that he has repeatedly lied and mismanaged the country – they knew that perfectly well before. It is simply that he is no longer a political asset. Very few seem to have considered the importance of integrity as a value in its own right, which is why they backed him until he became unpopular. Johnson’s only principle was his ability to win and the Conservatives pinned their identity on it. Now that his sole attraction has collapsed, so have they.


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This, in turn, exposes the party’s third desperate problem: they do not believe that they have anyone better. The vote did not signal that MPs wanted Johnson to stay – simply that he was their best bet. Given his manifest unfitness to lead, it is as shocking an indictment of the party as it is of the Prime Minister.

Until a couple of months ago, Chancellor Rishi Sunak was the leader-in-waiting – and if he had not sabotaged himself through the revelations about his wife’s non-dom status, his lockdown fine and mishandling of the economy, this week Johnson would almost certainly have been defeated.

Now Sunak’s star has fallen, however, there is nobody positioned to take over and lead the party to victory. Liz Truss is the likeliest candidate but divides the public, shows little aptitude and invites widespread ridicule. Meanwhile Penny Mordaunt is too obscure and Jeremy Hunt, Tom Tugendhat and Tobias Ellwood considered too centrist for today’s party and too bland in presentation.

The final problem is that the policy problems will remain no matter who the leader of the Conservative Party is. The Government is about to pick a new fight with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol, with a possible trade war to follow. The inquiry on COVID-19 will likely reveal widespread failures. And the cost of living crisis shows no signs of abating. While voters are suffering economically, they will not endorse the incumbents.

Staggering though it may have seemed just six months ago, the political fumes now recall the mid-1990s. The Conservatives look tired, bruised and angry. They have picked a fight with themselves and now picked one with voters. If they do not change, and change fast, they will be soundly beaten. Johnson, for his part, has already lost.

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