Boris Johnson bows to the inevitable, too late, and makes it worse

Chris Pincher, the former deputy chief whip, has finally been suspended as a Conservative MP

The government’s working majority has just gone down again. After the two by-elections last week it dropped to 75. Now it is 73, because Chris Pincher, who resigned as deputy chief whip last night, has ceased to be a Conservative MP, thus deducting one from the number of government MPs and adding one to the non-government total.

Boris Johnson and Chris Heaton-Harris, the chief whip, belatedly agreed that Pincher should be suspended from the parliamentary Conservative party while the allegations against him are investigated. This was after a whole day during which it proved impossible to find a Conservative MP, let alone an opposition one, who thought that Pincher should avoid being suspended. Indeed, the day started with Simon Hart, the Welsh secretary, saying that he had a view about Pincher’s future but he wasn’t going to say what it was.

Once again, the prime minister has made things worse for himself and the government. His failure to sack Matt Hancock immediately when it was revealed a year ago that he had broken coronavirus guidelines by his affair with Gina Coladangelo caused Johnson a surprising amount of difficulty. I thought at the time that Johnson acted out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, thinking that he should allow Hancock time to come to the inevitable conclusion and resign – which he did – rather than sack him peremptorily.

But he should have sacked Hancock straight away. It would have been better for both of them and the government. And he should have told Heaton-Harris to suspend Pincher last night. It is not often that a resignation letter from a government job begins as bluntly as Pincher’s: “Last night I drank far too much.” The letter itself did not mention the allegations of sexual assault against two men at the Carlton Club (what a role that place has in the history of the Conservative Party), but the opening sentence and the admission that “I’ve embarrassed myself” were quite enough to warrant suspending Pincher from the party and asking questions afterwards.

As it is, Johnson has allowed a day to pass in which he has appeared to resist doing the right thing. At the start of the day, while Simon Hart was hinting that Pincher would have to be suspended, it was reported that Guto Harri, the prime minister’s press secretary, was urging No 10 staff to be considerate of Pincher because he is vulnerable. Meanwhile commentators have been on the radio all day talking about the last days of the Roman Empire, or the last days of the John Major administration, and how it looks like a government that is just falling apart.

Part of the problem for Johnson is that political gravity is catching up with him. He has defied it with some skill, pretending to have ushered in an entirely new government in 2019. But the same party has supplied three different ministries over the past 12 years, and it is tired and running out of capable people. When Theresa May took over, she despatched many of the Cameroons, with some brutality (especially in the case of George Osborne). Then Johnson cleared out the Mayites, expelling many of them from the parliamentary party for their Brexit heresy. In both churns, MPs left the Commons and new MPs came in, but the bulk of the party rumbled on, its back benches increasingly loaded with embittered former ministers and those who’ve never been promoted.

Johnson had an ever-thinner field of loyalists to choose from, and thus in the last reshuffle he put rewarding loyalty above suitability for middle-ranking office in the case of someone such as Pincher.

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Nor is suspending Pincher the end of the matter. Whatever happens next, the government loses. If Pincher resigns as an MP, he will trigger a by-election in Tamworth, a seat that was Labour until 2010, although it seemed a safe Tory seat at the last election. Labour would need a much bigger swing to win it (22 per cent) than it secured in Wakefield last month (13 per cent), but such is the feeling of decay about this government that I doubt that Johnson wants to put that to the test.

And if Pincher stays on, he will be an independent MP, still in the Commons, reminding people of the series of scandals that have afflicted the government, along with Rob Roberts and David Warburton, also former Tory MPs still in Westminster after allegations of sexual harassment. Admittedly, the collection of seven independent MPs include those who are embarrassments to other parties too, but government scandal is always more serious than opposition scandal.

Johnson could have minimised his embarrassment over Pincher if he had acted decisively last night, but once again he has left it too late, so that he looks weak and the Conservative Party in parliament looks tainted.

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