Published:

Conservative MPs will be weighing up their career prospects as Boris Johnson faces the most ominous week of his whole career. Sue Gray’s report into “Partygate” will damage the Prime Minister, whatever its nuances and subtleties, as it holds up a pitiless mirror to the apparent decadence of the Downing Street operation at a time of national sacrifice.

He and they will surely reflect on how things can change by unforeseen events: less than a year ago, the Prime Minister sat atop double digit poll leads, an historic by election gain in Hartlepool, excellent local election results, a landslide win in the Tees Valley Mayoral race, the near miss in Batley and Spen and the comfortable Conservative retention of Old Bexley and Sidcup, the latter barely two months ago.

He seemed then to have silenced the Brexit haters in the liberal media; the Labour Party as well as his backbench critics were becalmed, and he seemed on the cusp of crafting a strong and positive message of post-Covid renewal, Brexit exceptionalism and patriotic effort – not to mention strong growth and economic renaissance.

And now, at the start of 2022, he faces the bleakest of scenarios: a majority of Tory MPs expect a vote of no confidence, much of the Party’s all-too-public debate is about Johnson’s character flaws, and the self-interested Scottish Party appears to have declared its own form of independence from London and Conservative Campaign HQ.

We have such ephemera as a row about whipping of Conservative MPs being portrayed as a portentous constitutional crisis meriting the attention of the police. I can confirm, Inspector Knacker, as a former whip, that they can be tough, rude, disobliging and sometimes coldly threatening, but it’s their job to get government business through. Who knew?

As a new backbencher in 2006, I once asked a senior Whip (still in the House) when I could leave after the last vote, to be told pithily “When I fucking tell you.” For full disclosure, that same whip was himself physically assaulted during the Maastricht imbroglio in 1993 by a notoriously thuggish Tory whip.

Of course, Johnson has made a number of foolish errors: Primary amongst them is employing Dominic Cummings in 2019, and in doing so buying into the belief that this self reverential philosopher king “won” the EU referendum. He didn’t. Cummings’  loathing of the Parliamentary Conservative Party was always apparent, and it was inevitable that he would blow up and try to take Johnson down with him. David Cameron called him a career psychopath for a reason.

The obsession with following the flawed prognostications of SAGE as justification for draconian lockdowns was another big mistake, which alienated many of his strongest supporters on the Right. A failure to properly vet candidates at the last election, outsourced to an inexperienced co-Chairman Ben Elliott amongst others, means he has many more adversaries on the green benches than was inevitable.

And a clique of social liberals in Number Ten Downing Street overly focussed on such potentially toxic policiesas Conversion Therapy, Online Harms and Net Zero, puts Johnson on the wrong side of the “culture war” with many new social conservative supporters. People see higher taxes, spiraling debt, government intervention and Woke nonsense and ask: “Is this a Conservative Government?” The Tory tribe is demanding, with a cost of living squeeze and an energy crisis pending, a la Ronald Reagan of Walter Mondale in 1984, “Where’s the beef?”

They will be taking soundings, in that most pompous phrase, from trusted local supporters, but the key question Parliamentarians will be asking is: Is it all over for Johnson? There will be many calculations about recoverability concerning the Prime Minister and his Government. After all, Blair won a 66 seat majority in 2005 after the Iraq war eviscerated his image as a “pretty straight kinda guy” and Margaret Thatcher suffered abysmal local election results and personal poll ratings prior to her reelection in 1987. Even Gordon Brown, with Peter Mandelson’s help, pulled back from catastrophe in 2007 to almost hold on to power in 2010.

Many nevertheless think not, for the following reasons.

It took almost two years to remove Theresa May, who was in a much weaker and more precarious position than Boris Johnson – charmless and lacking many natural allies; inauthentic in her desire to get Brexit done and having blown an overall majority, she clung on for many months even after having suffered the worst Commons defeat in modern history.

A Prime Minister’s patronage powers are still significant until the end. I see, as yet, no sign that the Cabinet will turn on Johnson at least until the local elections and they are split for the simple reason that there is no alternative Prime Minister waiting to take over.

I think that three speficic things will decide Johnson’s future.

Firstly, many MPs will still feel a sense of fair play, as do their constituents, and wish to allow the Prime Minister at least the chance to set out his post Covid “reset” stall once the regulations fall away on Wednesday before they turf him out. After all, they knew he had a reputation as a rogue and a chancer when they elected him.

Secondly, the Conservative Party will look monomaniacally deranged if it plunges into a protracted leadership campaign at the same time as GDP figures and jobless data point to a solid and sustainable economic recovery, perhaps the best in Europe. Likewise, Covid has been a curate’s egg, but with notable successes in the vaccination roll out and booster programmes. On the flip side, with the Northern Ireland Protocol, a weak US Presidency, expected trade deals and a geopolitical crisis in Ukraine in the offing, the British people will not forgive careerist maneuvering and navel-gazing. The fundamentals, historically, are better for Joohnson than for many post war Prime Ministers. Yes the ‘parties/work events’ (delete as required) caused great upset and offense, but will his colleagues see the wood for the trees?

Finally, Johnson has to clean house at 10 Downing Street and Parliament and be seen to do so: Heads need to roll. The operation demands a major overhaul, the Policy Unit needs re energising and refocusing, “informal” advice from entitled special friends eschewed and there needs to be a statement of sincere contrition for the mistakes of the last two years. Repairing relations with Conservative MPs must be an imperative

And “Red Meat” needs to be real, not a gimmicky slogan – scrapping the Human Rights Act for a British Bill of Rights to deal with cross Channel immigration, tax cuts for families focused on everyday cost of living pressures, a planning shakeup to build more homes, reform of the House of Lords and a recommitment to new regional infrastructure. Legacy stuff, yes – but things that non-political folk notice,

Johnson’s biggest threat is the Churchill argument. Yes, he’s a maverick, an historic figure, a contrarian, a one-off who marches to the beat of his own drum and a man for the moment (War Leader/Brexit champion). But maybe we need something else in peacetime and a fresh start once the dirty work is done?

A vote of no confidence is I believe coming but no one can yet predict whether the Prime Minister will be judged on what he has achieved and possibly thrown away; and what potential this uniquely gifted and talented man can still deliver for his party and his country. I wouldn’t bet my mortgage on either option just now.