William Hague once said that the Conservative Party is “an absolute monarchy tempered by regicide”.
Whilst Boris Johnson’s No 10 and its garden are a step down from Versailles and the Winter Palace, the goings on inside bear comparison with the last days of the Bourbons and the Romanovs. Like him, they assumed that there was one law for them and one for their subjects. The public suffered, while inside the palace gates the monarch engaged in bacchanalian frolics fuelled by the best wines from Chateaux Co-op.
Opinion polls suggest that the British public, including Conservative supporters, want the King’s head. The question now is mainly about the timing and method of execution.
For Boris himself, who once aspired to be King of the World, his reign will end in well-deserved ignominy. Wheeled to the guillotine, he will have spent barely two years in charge.
At present, the pace is being set by Dominic Cummings who seems to be releasing revelations and managing public outrage on a timetable dictated by his own revenge agenda. The appearance of the first sustained and substantial Labour poll lead for a decade is unleashing hysteria in the Conservative press, which sees the mild and moderate Keir Starmer as a latter-day Mirabeau or Kerensky, heralding revolutionary socialist horrors ahead.
Despite the onslaught, many Tory MPs are temporising, waiting for the report of a senior official, Sue Gray, to provide a definitive ruling on the social events which took place during lockdown. But she is unlikely to compromise her position as a civil servant by doing more than setting out facts. Those expecting clear conclusions about legality, still less about the prime minister’s judgement and sense of propriety, will be disappointed.
For the public, legalistic hair-splitting is not the issue in any event. It is the dreadful perceptions which matter. Whether there were five parties or 15; whether they were technically work-related or not; whether the prime minister was an active or passive participant – these are side issues.
The crisis might have been avoided if the prime minister had followed his own liberal instincts. There was merit in the Swedish voluntary approach to lockdown, relying on advice and advocacy rather than regulation and rules. But he didn’t go there and now has no answer to the thousands who were fined for rule-breaking or suffered from petty and cruel laws.
Nonetheless, the potential regicides have problems of their own. Many of them voted for Johnson as leader, knowing full well that he was a consistent rule-breaker and pathologically dishonest. They now want his head primarily because the public is angry. It is not Johnson’s duplicity which troubles Tory MPs but his demise in the polls.
But does this mean future leaders will also be axed as soon as their poll ratings slump and the public is fed up? There is a danger of Tory MPs becoming like Australian or Japanese politicians who got into the habit of disposing of their leaders rather in the manner of Premier League clubs ditching their managers after a run of bad results. Theresa May lasted three years; Johnson is likely to go after two and a half. Would Rishi Sunak be allowed a year or 18 months to solve the cost-of-living crisis?
Before anyone gets to find out, Tory MPs have to stop griping and start writing letters to get rid of Johnson. There is no ready-made band of assassins. Things have changed since a group of éminences grises from the same school or regiment, or club, would quietly do the deed. These days, MPs must calculate whether they should be one of the 54 to submit letters to the chairman of the 1922 Committee, with no guarantee that they will reach the threshold or win the subsequent vote of “no confidence”.
In the last parliament, I watched with fascination as Tory MPs manoeuvred to get rid of Theresa May, who was more unpopular then than Boris Johnson is now, and had none of his street-fighting skills. It was very messy: the rebels misjudged their timing and actually cemented her in place for several more months.
The current batch of Conservative MPs is a disunited coalition of very different kinds of constituencies, with varying degrees of vulnerability in the next election. There are former supporters of Theresa May, embittered ex-ministers, closet Remainers, militant Brexiters, Thatcherites, secessionist Scots, levelling-uppers and those from the home counties who privately think that more than enough is being done for the proletarian north.
If the prime minister is deposed, there will also be dozens of angry refugees from Johnson’s regime. His hangers on like Priti Patel, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Nadine Dorries would be out of a job in any other administration. Loyalists like Peter Bone, who have been out in the media, putting up a spirited defence of the leader, will not look kindly on the executioners either.
Assuming that Johnson can be disposed of, this disparate group of MPs has the key role of choosing a shortlist of two for the party members to choose from. Since the members are on average very old and have views far out of line with the voting public, this is supposed to be a defence mechanism against wild or eccentric candidates, though it failed when Andrea Leadsom made it (briefly) on to the ballot paper in 2017. The mechanism may yet be deployed to filter out candidates like Liz Truss, who would otherwise comfortably win a ballot of members but have limited appeal outside the readership of the Daily Express.
The Tories have several people who would probably strike the general public as grown-up and competent – Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zahawi, Rishi Sunak, Michael Gove – but such qualities may prove a disqualification in the party. And any unwholesome feature of their private lives will be given a good airing by resentful Johnson supporters. Sleuths from The Sun will already be probing the families of those candidates it regards as linked to suspicious places like the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent or China.
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A Conservative leadership election would also open a debate on what it is they are in power to do now that Brexit is “done”. Many new MPs and their constituents are comfortable with Johnson’s big-state Conservatism. Several of the plausible candidates – Truss, Sunak and Javid – want to retreat to the safer ideological ground of lower taxes and less regulation. Public debate between them will expose a deep fissure in the Tory ranks.
For the opposition, all of this looks like a good opportunity to bring Tory dominance to an end. In the short run, there are many opportunities for causing embarrassment. Keir Starmer is enjoying deploying his prosecutorial skills at the despatch box. This week’s PMQs already looks like a turkey shoot. Ed Davey’s well-chosen no confidence motion forces Tory MPs to defend a leader some are planning to ditch. If Johnson is ousted and abandons parliament, there is the prospect of a juicy by-election in Uxbridge.
Yet the longer term prospects are more murky. A new Tory leader will get an electoral bounce and the Labour lead will evaporate like snow in the spring sunshine. A key selling point of both Starmer and Davey is that, relative to Johnson, they are sensible and responsible. A sensible and responsible Tory leader could remove or diminish that advantage. To be sure, there is an economic mess and much hardship. But there was also in 1992 when John Major won a difficult election as a safe pair of hands after the excitement of the Thatcher years. Privately, the opposition will be praying for Johnson to hang on.
The political world is governed far more by headlines than strategy, especially in the face of febrile public anger. A week in politics looks like an eternity. It could, however, prove that the panicking Tories who are preparing to kill their monarch, and the opposition who hope to gain by his passing, should have heeded the old saw: be careful what you wish for.
Vince Cable is a former business secretary and leader of the Liberal Democrats. He records a regular podcast Cable Comments expanding on the themes from this column.
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