It’s a fair bet that the Prime Minister is looking forward to Christmas, to hunkering down at Chequers and putting the travails of politics behind him for a while. Whether he will have any peace is another matter. And it’s not just the arrival of yet another Johnson sprog that may disturb his sleep. Nightmares of being driven out of Downing Street may seem all too realistic. For Mr Johnson knows he is now on the skids. The storm about parties being held in Downing Street last Christmas has just added to the growing sense on the Conservative backbenches that their leader is becoming a liability not an asset. And the Conservative Party is ruthless with their leaders who do not deliver. Yet Mr Johnson is also one of the great Houdinis of politics, adept at wriggling out of tight spots and living to fight another day. Perhaps the Christmas nightmares will be leavened by foretelling dreams in which he eventually appears as the saviour of the nation, the man who led Britain through the pandemic to the restoration of normality and who can stay in office for as long as he chooses. But, as of now, does it look like the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson?
There are many ways that prime ministers find themselves ejected from power. Quite often it is because they are no longer seeing eye-to-eye with the public on some great issue of the moment. In 1945 Churchill was cheered in the streets and lauded by a grateful nation as the great war hero who, against all the odds stacked against him when he’d become prime minister in 1940, had beaten Hitler and saved Britain and western democracy. Yet the public did not share his views on how to rebuild the nation and voted resoundingly against him and in favour of Labour’s plans.
In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was evicted from Downing Street when her party thought the public had had enough of Thatcherism, notwithstanding the support voters had given it earlier. She had become too strident, too reckless in pursuing her ideological beliefs and her views on Europe were deemed, by her own party, too extreme for the public to stomach. Voters parted company with Tony Blair over Iraq: he was continuing to defend (and still does) his decision to join the invasion long after the public had come to the conclusion it had been a total disaster. So, in 2007, he had to go. And David Cameron simply misjudged the public mood on the European Union: he lost the gamble he’d taken on holding a referendum so he too had to go.
But if Boris Johnson is forced out of Downing Street in the coming weeks or months it will not be because of such a disagreement with the electorate over some major national issue but because of something that seems at first sight utterly trivial. A party was held in Number Ten when it should not have been. There was genuine outrage. How could it have been allowed when some were even forbidden even to hold the hands of their loved ones before they died? Then a video emerged of a mock Downing Street news conference. Sir Keir Starmer’s verdict: ‘They knew there was a party, they knew it was against the rules, they knew they couldn’t admit it, and they thought it was funny’.
For all the Prime Minister’s claims that he shared the country’s outrage at the video, it’s clear that this party – and others that are now alleged to have taken place within government while the legal ban was still in force – could have happened only with someone like Boris Johnson as the head of government. The culture of a place like Number Ten, as with all other institutions where power is wielded, is set by the boss. And throughout his life Mr Johnson has conducted himself as though rules didn’t matter, he could do what he wanted, he could create mayhem and he could get away with it.
It was a trait first noted by a teacher at Eton, who wrote on one of the young Boris’s reports, that he seemed to believe that rules didn’t apply to him. And it’s an attitude which could be said to have characterised his behaviour to women, to his career in journalism and to his whole political life. If this cavalier example is the one set by the boss, then it’s hardly surprising if the underlings think they should ape it. It is inconceivable that such illegal parties, known to be illegal, would have taken place in a Downing Street presided over by Theresa May or Gordon Brown, notorious Roundheads whose moral codes did not need to be made explicit in order for their staffs to realise that they must be conformed with.
Yet of course it is the very fact that Boris Johnson is the supreme Cavalier rather than the dull Roundhead that has been the source of his political success – just as their being dull Roundheads ultimately did for Brown and May. The public liked the cavalier. They liked the fact that he didn’t conform to what an archbishop of Canterbury might say a prime minister should be. They were entertained by the readiness to put two fingers up to convention. He was a breath of fresh air that might turn into a wind of change, and for change long-wished-for by those who felt that conventional politicians had taken them for granted, neglected them, or both. How else to account for the collapse of Labour’s red wall in the Midlands and the North in the election of 2019, the highpoint of Mr Johnson’s career?
Winning elections is one thing, but governing is another. One witty commentator remarked that before Mr Johnson became its leader the Tory Party was divided between those who thought he was an election winner and those who thought he wouldn’t be able to run a government to save his life and then, once he became leader, he united the party behind the fact that both views had been proved correct. What this demonstrates is that the Prime Minister’s relationship with his own backbenchers is purely transactional. That’s to say, they’ll back him so long as they think he will win them back their seats and keep the party in power – but there isn’t any other basis for their support.
This is why this week’s revelations are so dangerous for Mr Johnson. The outrage they have caused directly threatens the one thing he offers his backbenchers, the popularity he has enjoyed with voters. It turns out there are limits to the public’s enthusiasm for the cavalier. And the revelations come on the back of another of the Prime Minister’s homemade political disasters – his failed attempt to brush aside the rules in order to defend his friend, Owen Paterson, a Tory MP who had been found bang to rights in defying Commons’ rules himself. The public didn’t think much of that either.
So Conservative backbenchers are now recalculating the purely transactional deal they have with their leader. If he alienates the public, what’s the point of him? Almost all prime ministers come to alienate the public at some point in their tenure, but it doesn’t automatically mean that their party loses faith in them. If the leader represents a set of beliefs about the way the country should be governed and embodies a vision of where the country should be going, backbench supporters will stick with them even when they become unpopular because the future of a whole project is at stake.
So even when Margaret Thatcher had become electorally toxic for her party, true believers in Thatcherism, like the young Michael Portillo, rushed to Downing Street to plead with her not to throw in the towel: if she went, Thatcherism might well go with her. Similarly, when Tony Blair was
under intense pressure from terrible poll figures and from Gordon Brown’s followers to call it a day, the backbench Labour MP, Frank Field, urged him not to, reportedly saying to Mr Blair that it would be disastrous for the New Labour project if he were to resign and ‘let Mrs Rochester out of the attic’ (not the most flattering description of the co-founder of New Labour, Gordon Brown). And even when it was clear that there was no way David Cameron could do other than resign after he’d lost his gamble in holding the EU referendum through misreading the public mood, many of his supporters felt dejected because they feared that their project, modernising the Conservative Party, would depart with the defeated leader.
In Mr Johnson’s case, however, there is no crusading ‘project’ he shares with even some of his backbenchers that might rally them to his side when things become sticky with the voters. All he has ever offered his backbenchers is the claim that his cavalier approach to politics wins votes. But if the voters become nauseated by that approach, he has nothing else to offer. In short, Mr Johnson is his own nemesis. That’s why many people, including on the Tory benches, claim we are now seeing the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson.
But perhaps such talk is premature. He has shown himself before to be the Houdini of politics. His whole career – his whole life – has been about getting into scrapes of his own making, wriggling out of them in ways that make sure the costs of his behaviour, the injuries inflicted by it, are paid for by others, not by him. (Claiming to share our outrage, he assures us that anyone found to have broken the rules in Downing Street last Christmas will be disciplined: Allegra Stratton, his former spokesperson who wasn’t even at the party, has already tearfully fallen on her sword.) Then, having made sure he remains unscathed from the consequences of his own behaviour, he bounces back to launch himself on the next adventure of his life. It has been a remarkable performance and it got him to Downing Street.
Maybe he can pull the trick again, and all this ‘beginning of the end’ stuff will prove to be just wishful thinking on the part of those who want to see the back of him. After all, he was starting to be written off a year or so ago, but the vaccination programme provided him with political salvation in 2021. Maybe 2022 will offer its own escape route – booster jabs, perhaps, turning him by this time next year into the Man Who Got Britain Through Covid. Stranger things have happened in politics.
So is this the beginning of the end of Boris Johnson’s tenure in Downing Street, or not? And ought it to be?
What’s your view? Let us know.