Westminster is brutal – but are the rebels prepared to wield the dagger against Boris Johnson?

And if they are, is Rishi Sunak strong enough to succeed in this bloody Shakespearean tragedy?

Cathy Newman
Thursday 20 January 2022 14:32
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Tory MP David Davis tells Boris Johnson to quit: ‘In the name of God, go’

Politics at the moment is all Shakespearean tragedy. The vaulting ambition of the man who would be world king, and the Conservative rebels egging each other on to screw their courage to the sticking place. For the sake of both party and country, if they intend to commit regicide, Boris Johnson’s opponents would do well to channel Macbeth: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

But really, I wonder whether I’ve got the wrong play after all. Spending time in Westminster yesterday was like wandering onto the set of the Bard’s Titus Andronicus – you know, the bloodthirsty one featuring multiple murders and cannibalism. I’d forgotten how brutal politics was. Yesterday, I remembered.

First, the defection: to leave your political tribe and sashay across the floor to your sworn enemies, just minutes before your leader stands up to face the house and the nation, is about as cut-throat as it gets. Christian Wakeford’s personal message to the prime minister that “sadly both you and the Conservative Party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves” must surely have wounded.

But if Wakeford was expecting much kindness or understanding from his former colleagues he was swiftly disabused of the notion. “Good riddance to bad rubbish,” said Conservative MP Lee Anderson. Some of his voters said they felt betrayed.

And while the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer crowed at his new recruit, activists on the left pored over what columnist Owen Jones called Wakeford’s “atrocious voting record”. Momentum said simply he shouldn’t be in the Labour Party.

But if a strangely ebullient Johnson judged that a defection was precisely what was needed to unify rebellious MPs behind him, David Davis’s act of treachery was something else altogether. Here was a big beast in the Tory jungle, snarling and then going for the kill. No wonder Davis was the kid at school constantly getting into scraps, breaking his nose no fewer than five times, once in a fight on Clapham Common.

While that most effete of cabinet ministers, Jacob Rees-Mogg, would surely run for nanny if confronted in a south London park, he deployed what weapons he had – verbal – to take down the man some in the tea room were calling a traitor.

Davis was, the Commons leader told me on last night’s Channel 4 News, “something of a lone wolf” and his comments were “too theatrical”. Was it all about him? I asked Rees-Mogg. “You might think that: I couldn’t possibly comment,” he said.

Of course, Davis may have honed his political savagery as a government whip during votes on the Maastricht Treaty in the 1990s. Now, today’s whips are strong-arming the latter-day rebels in much the same way.

One of the first to call for the prime minister to quit, Andrew Bridgen, told me he’d been under growing pressure from them in recent days, even suggesting the whips may have planted a “smear story” about him in the papers earlier in the week, “which I don’t think was a coincidence”.

Witnessing the reaction to Wakeford and Davis, it may take some of Johnson’s opponents longer now to wield the dagger against him.

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And as for those watching and waiting, hoping to inherit from King Boris, they’d be wise to recall Shakespeare’s Henry IV: “Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.” We haven’t seen the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, really tested yet. So we don’t know if he possesses the callous survival instincts that propelled the current occupant to the top of the Westminster tree.

Then again, does politics really have to be this way? For years now, leading protagonists have called for a kinder, gentler politics. It’s never worked out that way so far.

Starmer often seems to lack the brutality of colleagues who have been around the corridors of power for longer. He’s had some success contrasting his thoughtful, more considered approach with the prime minister’s rumbustious style. But in order to win, politicians have to have a supreme belief in themselves. To the rest of us, they can look ruthless.

And those who lack those qualities – like Sir John Major for example – may be nicer people, but ultimately less successful politicians. There’s now a trial of strength going on between the prime minister and his foes. The winner takes it all.

Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’, weekdays at 7pm

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