The split over Boris Johnson’s future is just the start of a massive Tory identity crisis | Raphael Behr
IAmong the reduced ranks of Tory MPs who still support Boris Johnson, few see him as a man of honour. Maybe none. Their loyalty cannot be made up of moral inspiration or shared principle, since the Prime Minister believes only in his right to live in Downing Street. It is above all the fear of losing current privileges and the hope of gaining new ones.
Some deputies have been promised a promotion; others cling to ministerial jobs that would never have been available if competence had been the criterion of recruitment.
Politics is not absent from the transaction. A wounded prime minister, half-hearted and desperate for friends is attractive to ideologues whose conditional support can be used as a veto on the government’s agenda. That’s why there was a U-turn last month on an anti-obesity plan that would have banned certain junk food ads and supermarket deals. MPs who hated the violation of market freedoms threatened Johnson with letters of defiance. He gave in.
It also explains why 22 Tory donors, responsible for more than £18million in past contributions to the party coffers, signed a letter offering “unwavering support” to the outgoing leader. A man entirely at the mercy of his political creditors is worthy to bid reliably.
And then there is Europe, always present in the conservative quarrels. It’s the old infidelity, not mentioned at the bickering stage of a marital tiff, that is unleashed when tempers flare. In the hours leading up to Monday’s confidence vote, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, said Johnson’s critics were disgruntled remnants. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the official groomer of the firm’s Eurosceptic leisure horses, has denounced the ballot as a plot “to undermine the Brexit referendum”.
It is nonsense as a description of the Conservatives who oppose the Prime Minister. Their number includes many outgoing diehards. But in anticipation of the trauma Johnson’s departure will one day inflict on the Conservative party, it’s fair to invoke Brexit. The dismissal of prime ministers calls into question their legacy. That doesn’t mean the Tories will suddenly yearn for lost intimacies with Brussels, but a new leadership will reopen the possibility of a relationship based on diplomacy rather than threats, fact rather than fiction.
In Tory mythology, Johnson brought the party back from the brink of annihilation in 2019 by securing a Brexit deal. He succeeded where Theresa May failed and was rewarded with a landslide election victory. What really happened was that Johnson found himself in the same negotiating stalemate as May – the issue of the Northern Irish border – but resolved it differently. While May had struggled to find compromises that would work in reality, his successor shrugged off that onerous obligation, freeing himself to strike a deal in the realm of Brexit fantasy. He signed things with no intention of implementing them, then lied about what they contained.
The current threat to enact legislation that would overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol is tantamount to admitting that the original deal was bad after all. Fixing it requires a return to the quagmire Johnson’s election was supposed to be the exit from. The monument where Tory MPs pay homage to the record of their leader – Boris raging in Brussels – will one day have to fall.
It’s no surprise that Rees-Mogg and his friends want to postpone this moment, and not just because a replacement will likely end up looking more like May’s deal. To contemplate succession is to wonder what direction the Conservative party should take next, which is an uncomfortable question after years of straying from economic, diplomatic and strategic rationality.
Johnson’s loyalists complain that the rebels cannot agree on another leader; that none of the potential successors has celebrity to rival the incumbent. What they mean is that no one can repeat the trick of winning over traditional Labor supporters in those fabled ‘red wall’ seats of northern England and the Midlands, while retaining the affections of a conventional conservative base in the south.
The flaw in that defense is that Johnson himself shows little chance of repeating the trick, which was as much a feature of Jeremy Corbyn pushing voters away as evidence of a magnetic “Boris Effect”. Opinion polls, council ballots and by-elections suggest there are plenty of degaussed seats available for a less toxic Labor leader.
The call for election chemistry that only Johnson can pull off was born out of fears Britain won’t really want to buy what the Conservative Party is selling, except when it has a talented fraudster at the sales counter. It is an acknowledgment that the Tory majority is fragile, not least because it is stuck with votes that could have gone to Nigel Farage’s Brexit party had he not removed candidates from the 317 seats held by the Tories. Farage had plagued conservatives for at least a decade before this ceasefire.
Brexit has merged two antithetical forces: a conservative party that traditionally unites around the stalwarts of the British establishment, and a grandstanding insurgency that defines itself as a scourge of the establishment. Johnson’s campaign talent was to represent both things at once. But it was an illusion, a spell that can’t be cast once broken. No wonder so many Tory MPs are confused and alarmed. They know Johnson is a problem, but also that removing him will reveal just how deep the problem is. They remade their party as a leader with no conscience, integrity or values beyond the desperate pursuit of power. So they don’t like this disreputable “Boris” character they now see in front of them? They look at themselves in the mirror.