Demands to change the Conservative leadership challenge rules fade away during the next few weeks. Boris Johnson carries out a reshuffle as effective as last year’s, rewarding his supporters, balancing factions and interests, mollifying his critics. The Government survives two by-election humiliations in Tiverton & Honiton and Wakefield.
The Prime Minister returns to Parliament in the autumn to be cleared by the Standards Committee of misleading the Commons. Christopher Geidt does not resign. The two in five Tory MPs who voted against him yesterday, a clear majority of the 185 or so backbenchers, plus an alienated slice of his own payroll voted, are reconciled.
The Conservative Party Conference is a presentational triumph. Johnson finds a unprecedented discipline to march in step with his gift for crisis management. The Government acquires a coherence from classic Tory policies: spending control, deregulation, tax cuts.
It begins to crack the housing, family stasis, labour immobility and low growth problem. Keir Starmer is fined by Durham police and resigns. The Conservatives recover in the polls as inflation begins to fade. All is set fair for a second substantial Johnson election victory in 2024.
Is all that possible? Just about. Is it likely? No. A better bet is that after a brief pause there is a ding-dong in the ’22 Executive about changing the leadership challenge rules. Nadine Dorries and company charge in to accuse some Executive members and other Tory MPs of not knowing when they’ve lost. The media report and analyse little else.
Meanwhile, some members of Team Johnson want to make an example of the rebels, while others want to make up to them. Amidst such divided counsels it comes as no surprise that the shuffle only makes matters worse. Penny Mordaunt sets up as a busy critic of the Government, whether she is still a member of it or not.
The by-election results widen internal divisions about rule changes, and much else. The Prime Minister returns in the autumn with speculation about his future at fever pitch. The Standards Committee report says that he misled the House about Downing Street parties – not deliberately, but carelessly.
There is a rumpus about what the penalty should be. The Conservative conference is a horror show. Rebels grow increasingly contemptuous of the whips. Number Ten is divided about how to deal with them. There is economic policy chaos. Another leadership challenge looms, and this time round it looks fatal.
As I wrote yesterday, there are no good options. Were Johnson to quit as Prime Minister, he might simply walk away, leaving an uncertain interregnum. Even a smooth one could run in tandem with an unappealing leadership election, which could well be another Andy Warhol event: i.e: one in which obscure candidates are famous for 15 minutes.
No Cabinet member would be a tested proposition as the next Prime Minister. Johnson would leave behind him an angry fan base among party activists and the myth of a brilliant giant brought low by political pygmies – and Remainer ones at that.
There could be activist leakage to Reform or Renew or Reveille or whatever it calls itself. The election of a third Tory leader in seven years could mark one of those sudden electoral convulsions which happen from time to time, like the movement to Labour under Tony Blair. The age of the Conservatives could suddenly seem to be over.
Perhaps Johnson should stick it out rather than abandon his Party to this grisly fate. But my best guess is that he is now sustained as Prime Minister only by a wavering and unreliable payroll vote – bits of which yesterday gave him its voice in public, but not its vote in private.
If so, he would be better to go now as master of his own fate, undefeated at the ballot box either nationally or at Westminster, rather than be forced out later this year by another ballot or a Ministerial revolt. Graham Brady might offer that advice in private, but wouldn’t let on were he to do so.
So it’s over to you, Cabinet members. I understand why none of you will want to advise Johnson to go, either individually or collectively – thereby volunteering to be cast as weasels, Game of Thrones-type plotters, fainthearts and stab-in-the-back artists by the Johnson fan club, and others.
Instead, you can simply sit it out, I suppose, and keep your head down. The odds are that this will do the country and your party no good. Admittedly, taking the initiative might not do some of you much good either, since the mercurial Prime Minister could then fire you in any coming shuffle.
However, you would be setting out a way in which Johnson can leave office undefeated sooner rather than lose a ballot later – or have no option but to quit before it (thus gaining nothing other than more agonising months or weeks in office but not in power).
It would be a wretched end for the man who led the delivery of Brexit, the vaccine rollout and support for Ukraine – and who has paid a high price for walking into and staying at a surprise birthday party he knew nothing about. But he would at least be, as the saying has it, taking back control.