Take a guess as to what you think politicians might regard as the most precious of all political commodities. You might well include on your list trust. If they lose the trust of us, the voters, they are surely toast. The same is true of plausibility. A successful politician must be able to persuade us that they have the answers to the nation’s problems. Why else would we elect them? You might also include on your list the ability to charm us, to make us smile, to help us feel good about ourselves. And, yes, they are all important in modern politics. But the most precious of all political commodities is the benefit of the doubt. That’s what John Major has said in a speech savagely attacking Boris Johnson. When a politician is in big trouble he needs people to give him the benefit of the doubt and the prime minister is losing it. Do you agree? And if you do, is it time for him to pack his bags and leave Number Ten?
Sir John stopped short of explicitly calling for Mr Johnson to resign, but that was implicit in everything he said. He could scarcely have made it more clear that he wants to see the back of him. That’s hardly surprising, say Mr Johnson’s defenders. The two men have never been the best of friends and their differences over Brexit put paid to any last vestige of respect for each other that there might once have been. But by any standards of political discourse, Sir John’s speech was savage. He accused Mr Johnson of lying, of making the government look ‘distinctly shifty’ with ‘brazen excuses’ over parties in Downing Street, of breaking lockdown laws and of damaging trust in democracy.
In a speech to the Institute for Government, Sir John put it like this: ‘The lack of trust in the elected portion of our democracy cannot be brushed aside. Parliament has a duty to correct this. If it does not and trust is lost at home, our politics is broken.... Deliberate lies to parliament have been fatal to political careers and must always be so. If trust in the word of our leaders is lost, then trust in government will be lost too.... It is more precious than any government, any political party or any individual. ’
It wasn’t only the prime minister personally Sir John had in his sights. It was his government too: ‘Too often ministers have been evasive and the truth has been optional. When ministers respond to legitimate questions with pre-prepared soundbites or half-truths or misdirection or wild exaggeration, then respect for government and politics die a little more. Misleading replies to questions invite disillusion. Outright lies breed contempt.’
Mr Johnson’s supporters swiftly came to his defence. They pointed out that Sir John had led the Conservative Party to its biggest defeat in history and it had taken them thirteen years to recover. Zac Goldsmith (given a peerage by Boris Johnson when he lost his seat in the Commons) described Major as ‘A stale old corporatist who delivered seven years of autopilot government ... and is still struggling to come to terms with the country’s decision to leave the EU.’
Others pointed to his record in government and poked fun at his ‘back to basics campaign’ which had become, in the words of one critic, ‘a joke: a byword for ministerial corruption and sex scandals.’ It was also pointed out that the ‘cash for questions’ scandal – perhaps the most serious in recent history – erupted on Major’s watch. The Mail writer Andrew Pierce suggested that ‘the brown envelope stuffed with cash in return for asking a parliamentary question’ became the metaphor for his government.
We were also reminded that Sir John’s own moral probity was hardly beyond reproach. He’d had his own sex scandal: an affair with his ministerial colleague Edwina Currie which lasted from 1984 to 1988 even though both were married at the time. It was she who shopped him.
All pretty unenlightening stuff. But, as seasoned observers of the Westminster scene observe, it is not a speech by a single party colleague that will unseat Boris Johnson or, indeed, the disapproval of the nation at large. That’s already pretty close to rock bottom. Even Theresa May at her most unpopular had more support in the polls than Johnson now enjoys. Nor, they say, is it even the possibility that he will be found guilty of having committed a criminal offence (offences?) during lockdowns. It is, of course, his own MPs who will decide his fate.
It will take 54 of them to precipitate a vote of confidence and 181 members to vote against him. Or for him. And that simple arithmetical fact explains so many of Boris Johnson’s actions over this past week. A Times leading article the day after the Major speech claimed that Mr Johnson’ entire political strategy appears to be focused on securing those 181 votes rather than on regaining the trust of the public.
That explains in part, say his critics, why his government reshuffle was such a damp squib. Much was expected of it. Comparisons were being drawn with the most famous reshuffle in modern political history: the infamous ‘Night of the Long Knives’ when Harold Macmillan sacked a third of his cabinet in 1962. Others were more sceptical and, it turns out, for a very good reason.
One consequence of reshuffles is that for every minister who is promoted and owes a great debt to the prime minister, another is despatched to the backbenches and nurtures a profound resentment. And when a prime minister needs every vote he can get in the event of a no-confidence vote it’s hardly likely he will wield the long knife too enthusiastically. In the event Mr Johnson reached for the butter knife – and even that was used for only the most gentle reshaping of the government. Not a single cabinet minister was sacked.
Instead, Mark Spencer, the chief whip, and William Rees-Mogg, the leader of the House, were moved to different jobs. They had something in common. Both of them had had the dubious distinction of supporting Boris Johnson during what is now commonly regarded as the Owen Patterson scandal. Mr Patterson was, of course, the Tory MP who was ultimately forced to resign after he was found to have accepted close to £500,000 for lobbying on behalf of two large companies. Mr Johnson wanted to rewrite the rules to save his bacon. The House decided otherwise. It was, by any standards, a humiliating defeat for him.
The word from Downing Street is that there will be a wider reshuffle in some months to come. The suggestion is that this is not the time to create too much instability. The Johnson doubters say its real intention is to convey a message to backbenchers hoping for a seat in the Cabinet: give us your support if it comes to a confidence vote and it will be duly noted.
The same motive – trying to shore up support on the backbenches - is attributed by Johnson sceptics to his surprise announcement that the government will lift all the remaining Covid restrictions a month earlier than had been planned. The announcement has been met with a mixed reception. Some scientists suggest it is taking an unnecessary risk. Covid is still out there, they say, and this is no time to be throwing caution to the wind. Others applauded the announcement. Only a very tiny number are dying because of Covid, they point out, and the damage being caused to the environment by unnecessary restrictions outweighs the risk. It is high time we learned to live with the disease just as we live with the flu.
The overarching question as I write is the same as it has been for rather a long time now: are you prepared to live with Boris Johnson as prime minister? Do you believe that his actions are motivated solely by what is in the best interests of the nation or by his own instincts for survival at Number Ten? Are you prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt?
Let us know what you think.