There is no optimal outcome for the Conservative Party from today’s confidence ballot – and none for the country either.
A Boris Johnson victory will settle nothing. The Standards Committee inquiry into whether he misled the Commons over Downing Street social gatherings will report in the autumn. It may probe agatherings in Downing Street and elsewhere that Sue Gray didn’t investigate. It isn’t impossible that Christopher Geidt may resign as the Prime Minister’s adviser on Ministerial interests.
If Johnson is victorious today by an emphatic margin, these rocks in the water may look more distant than they really are – at least until the Wakefield and Tiverton & Honiton by-elections later this month.
If he isn’t, they won’t, and two big questions will loom immediately. Will any Ministers resign – especially Cabinet ones – on the ground that Johnson’s position is now hopeless? And will the 1922 Committee’s Executive move to change the rule that bars a further challenge within a year?
And if the future looks cloudy in the event of Johnson winning, that’s nothing compared to the fog that will engulf the Conservatives if he doesn’t.
Will he stay as Prime Minister until the forthcoming leadership election is concluded? If he quits immediately, who succeeds him? The obvious choice would be the Deputy Prime Minister, but what happens if Dominic Raab declares that he will stand for the Tory leadership?
Would Raab be acceptable to the Cabinet as an interim Prime Minister? Or to Conservative MPs as a whole? If not him, then whom? And who would make the necessary assessment? The whips? The ’22?
We know the names of potential leadership contenders. None have been as well established at the top of politics for as long as either Theresa May, who had been Britain’s longest-serving Home Secretary when elected Tory leader, or Johnson himself, first elected Mayor of London as long ago as 2008.
What would they be like as a leader? Could they manage a team? Cope with a crisis? Stand up to the scrutiny to which their past and present would be exposed? We have no idea.
The one certainty that Conservative MPs should cling to as they vote is that it is far too early to call the next general election result. The Party may be doomed with Johnson as leader…and it may not. Yes, it may well be that an elemental trust has gone among key voters that will never return.
But the last four years have given us Brexit, which some said couldn’t be delivered. Plus the first mass pandemic in a century. And the first war between states in Europe since 1945.
So there is no knowing what tide and time may bring. And if that sounds like an argument for the status quo, it certainly isn’t the only one. Johnson won a near landslide election win roughly two years ago, so delivering the country from a second referendum that could – I will put it no higher – have sparked civil strife.
This was an imperishable achievement by the Johnson/Cummings combo, the break-up of which has led inexorably today’s ballot.
In the two or so years since that victory, the Prime Minister has had to grapple with the pandemic, severe illness, a war – and now a worldwide economic blizzard. Yet he has endured no major policy reverse: nothing equivalent to Suez or the Iraq War…or the triple crushing of his predecessor’s flagship Brexit policy in the Commons.
There are further arguments to leave well alone – for Conservatives, at any rate. If Johnson goes, he will be the third Tory leader to depart within seven years. Why give the Remainer zealots what they want?
For while Johnson’s relationship with most Tory MPs is essentially transactional, the same isn’t true of a substantial slice of Party activists. Even today, over two in five want him to carry on, according to our snap survey. Many of these supporters are passionate about Brexit and see the Prime Minister as a symbol of it.
If he is forced out, watch for a stab-in-the-back myth. Some of the MPs, publications and activists that now pour ordure on that blond head will be kneeling at his feet in less than a year, pleading for his return.
In the event of a leadership contest, candidates who have served in Johnson’s Cabinet will have questions to answer – as they frantically sprint to place distance between themselves and the man who made them. The spectacle would be pathetic. And risk provoking public contempt.
Which brings us to those Downing Street parties. I don’t believe that Johnson should resign because he received a fine for staying briefly at a party of which he had no notice.
Others will hold that he should carry the can for mass rule-breaking in the place that he works at and among staff for whom he is responsible. At this point, the rational arguments for Johnson staying begin to fade, and intuitive ones for him going start to grow.
“What will worry Conservative MPs most is a growing view that Number Ten can’t stick to anything and doesn’t tell the truth,” I wrote last December, arguing that a vote of no confidence “has suddenly become more likely than not”.
Or, if you want a view from his youth, chew over this one from a teacher at Eton: “I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.”
Doesn’t tell the truth: a kinder way of putting it is that the truth bores him. I cite an example trivial in scope, profound in implication – the mystery of who authorised the rescue of Nowzad’s dogs when Afghan allies were left to die.
Can’t stick to anything: again, not quite right. The Government is holding to high taxes to pay for high spending: the fundamental driver of Tory voter, MP and activist dissatisfaction. There is no coherent plan to reform our public services or rise to the challenge of Brexit, for all the good work that Ministers are doing at the margins.
Whether they love him or loathe him, Conservative MPs can surely agree on a single point, as they mull the terrible suspicion that the right man for winning the election may be the wrong man for governing the country.
Which is that as the Prime Minister began, so he will finish – and continue until events overtake him, as Britain’s housing crisis, with its thwarting of family life, impaired labour mobility and low growth staggers on. If Churchill walked with destiny, Johnson winks at destiny. There is a Shakespearian sense of scale, an Odyssean one of ego.
Or to bring us just a bit nearer the present day, what about an iconic figure from the 1970s – the decade of the Prime Minister’s teenage years?
With his spangled charisma, shamelessness, stomping noise and self-projection, Johnson has some of the feel of that era, to whose stagflation and chaos we may be returning. Like Ziggy Stardust, he is the special man. Now he is playing for time, jiving us that we are voodoo.
The worst result this evening would be a narrow win for him – prolonging the agony. Reason says stick. Intuition says twist: roll the dice and see what happens. He took it all too far, but boy could he play guitar.