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Revellers in Boris Johnson masks outside Downing Street

The Conservative Party is in disarray and Prime Minister Boris Johnson is fighting for his political life. Following the string of revelations about ‘bring your own booze’ parties, Christmas quizzes, and ‘work meetings’ with canapes and wine that appear to have been held pretty much non-stop at Downing Street, government departments and party headquarters over the course of the pandemic, the governing party is riven by factions, with leaders of the Scottish Conservative Party and some of Johnson’s own English MPs openly calling for him to go. The MP Caroline Nokes accused him of ‘damaging the whole Conservative brand’. Others are more quietly plotting his downfall. Just 54 letters to the chair of the influential 1922 Committee are needed to trigger a vote of no confidence in the prime minister. This display of outrage has little to do with a sudden onset of moral rectitude in a party that has none, and everything to do with a real fear of losing their seats in any future election. However, a large number – playing for time to see which way to jump – have said they will wait for the findings of the Sue Gray investigation into the ‘party gate’ debacle before deciding whether to act against the prime minister.

They may be waiting a long time. For like a cornered rat, Johnson is prepared to fight as dirty as necessary to save his political skin – in this case enlisting the help of the police to delay or mitigate the publication of the Gray report. On 25 January, Met Commissioner Cressida Dick made it clear that the Gray report should provide ‘minimal detail’ in order not to ‘spoil the police investigation’. One Tory MP described the Met’s actions as an ‘abuse of power’, but it’s clear in whose interests they are acting. As we go to press the publication of the much-delayed report is being described as ‘imminent’ but it is clear details incriminating Johnson and his allies will be heavily redacted. The whole charade is just one more stitch-up by a self-serving, venal, mendacious and corrupt buffoon. The question is, will it be enough to save him or has the ruling class decided that Boris Johnson no longer serves their interests?

In December 2019 Boris Johnson gambled and won. On the advice of one Dominic Cummings, he declared war on parliament, expelled the dissenters in his party, and went to the polls as the man who could deliver Brexit for the people. It was a bold move – the only one of his premiership. A populist election pitch appealed to new Tory members defecting from UKIP but upset almost everyone else in the party. More than that, it did the Lib Dems’ campaigning for them in the south. North of the border, it was as good as gifting seats to Nicola Sturgeon. But … if it meant breaching Labour’s Red Wall in the English north and midlands, they could hit the jackpot. 

Though some thought it fanciful and said so, Cummings reasoned that if traditional Labour voters had backed Brexit twice already – at the 2016 referendum and then again by voting UKIP at the 2019 European elections – they would also vote for a Tory party committed to leaving the EU by whatever means. ‘Get Brexit Done’ was penned to take their votes – it was also there to entice to the polls Tories in London and the Shires who just wanted to get Brexit over with. And it worked. Spectacularly. 

It produced, however, a government with a mandate to do two things – only one of them possible: leave the EU, and produce a Brexit dividend. The government’s Withdrawal Agreement had royal assent within six weeks – leaving it four full years to chase the impossible. On the opposition benches – where they too have joined the cult and drank the Kool-Aid – it’s called making Brexit work. The government call it levelling up. Detractors complain that two years in, we still don’t actually know what levelling up means. Balls. We know precisely what it means: just another slush fund. Out goes public money to Tory marginal and target seats, in comes votes from grateful parishioners. Just as the Towns Fund shored-up Conservative support ahead of the last election – assisting both its northern campaign and rearguard action against the Lib Dems – the Levelling Up Fund is calculated to give only enough bait to voters, and to keep their MPs tied to the apron strings. 

Blinded by the hype, the northern faithful awaited a revolution never to come. A Department for Levelling Up was created by changing the sign outside the housing ministry. Dissembler-in-chief Michael Gove was put in charge. If their noses weren’t already in the Towns Fund trough, they might’ve smelt a rat. Blissfully ignorant, the 2021 Autumn Budget whet an appetite it was supposed to satisfy. Johnson’s overpromising continually swelled expectations, so much so that whatever the government delivered was destined to underwhelm. The new Tories wised up only slowly; when the Department for Transport scaled back HS2 they choked on their swill. Jake Berry – who leads the clique of Red Wall MPs in parliament – questioned whether northern voters were being taken for a ride. Not by train obviously. 

Perched on marginal seats, the Tory new blood are a restive bunch – highly sensitive to their party’s public image. So as tales of fast times at Downing Street went to press they struggled to keep their cool. Ever so jumpy, they demanded their leader account for his whereabouts and gadabouts. Which, unfortunately for them, he did. Before a packed House of Commons, Johnson recalled how he had been lured into his garden in May 2020 under false pretences; he didn’t realise he was at a party because no one was wearing a toga and his wife was there. Surrounded by froth and woozy gibberish he mistook it for a cabinet meeting. There was little doubt the rules were properly followed – few cheat at Beer Pong and get away with it, not on his watch. It was well over a year since 10 Downing Street had been repurposed as a lockdown speakeasy, his government had ended prohibition, it was time to move on. And so, there they had it. Why was that so hard for them to swallow? Boarding at Eton he’d swallowed a lot worse.

Various of the prime minister’s old foes then took their chance to land a blow. Serial mutineer Andrew Bridgen MP made himself the face of the backbench rebellion – and when some rather unflattering stories about him appeared in newspapers friendly to Number 10, he accused government whips of blackmailing rebels into submission: the Metropolitan Police were asked to investigate. Next up, sacked junior minister Nusrat Ghani complained that Johnson presided over a nest of Ultra-Tories – and that their religious intolerance had cost her a job at the transport ministry. Ministers responded that they were committed to upholding the principles of religious freedom. For several months now they’ve allowed Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg to attend cabinet meetings – and he’s not even Church of England, never mind High Anglican.

But it is Johnson’s remaining allies, not his enemies, who will determine his political future. Red Wall MPs have to decide whether his leadership is more help than hinderance to them. It’s a calculation the Scottish Tories made some time ago, having lost seven of their thirteen seats at the last election. Up until now in England, inner-party opposition to Johnson has come largely from MPs in safe seats. The new challenge to his leadership is more urgent. With long periods of remote parliamentary attendance since the last election, there has been little time to housetrain the new Tory intake – government whips hardly know their new MPs nor how to handle them. 

Fortunately for Johnson, the new boys are also novice conspirators. The defective pork pie putsch confronted its masterminds with a few home truths. Clearly the plotters have it in their power to hurt the prime minister but, without the coup de grâce, every blow he sustains is a wound the party carries to the polls – if not fatal to him, it could be to them. Secondly, if they cannot rely on Johnson to save their seats, they ought to have a ready replacement who can. They do not. Assuming an agreed successor is out of the question, ousting Johnson will mean another Tory leadership race – the third in six years. The shortlist of contenders is a persuasive argument for going back to bed. The Tory 2019ers are said to favour either chancellor Rishi Sunak or foreign secretary Liz Truss for the top job. Truss is an idiot and therefore popular with the rank and file, if not with her colleagues. The dearth of political talent however means she could stumble into the final face-off and win the members’ vote. Sunak’s principal attribute is that people actually know who he is – and associate him with public spending, even while he promises the opposite. 

But a leadership contest is a shot in the dark. With an eye on their nearest rival, the party favourites risk running each other into the ground, clearing a way for the donkeys. Speaking of whom, Sajid Javid, Dominic Raab and virtually all the also-rans from last time out are tipped to go again. Jeremy Hunt wonders if after two years spent on the backbenches party members will have forgotten who he is – if so, he may be in with a chance. Priti Patel won’t be easily deterred, though God knows her colleagues will try. 

Even if the northerners’ preferred candidate were to beat a way through this rabble, they’d walk straight into a cost-of-living crisis and endure any embarrassment to be suffered at the local elections in May. To everything there is a season: if Johnson really is dead meat, why not bide time and let his reputation take the pummelling? 

If by leaving the EU, the Conservatives put an old party division to rest, they’ve lost no time in opening up a whole lot of new ones – and they could be about to make things even worse. Those upstart Tory rebels have Pandora’s box before them. They’re certainly daft enough to open it, for now just a little too stupid to figure out how.

Patrick Casey

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! No 286, February/March 2022