Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Conventional wisdom holds that there is now little that Boris Johnson can do. The confidence vote has peppered him fatally. Like a maimed pheasant, raked by shot, he might drag himself through the undergrowth for a while; but the spaniels are closing in.
His problem, according to this school of thought, is that the 148 Tory MPs who voted against him are not a unified faction, as were the Europhiles who moved against Margaret Thatcher in 1990 or the Eurosceptics who moved against Theresa May in 2018. If they had a single overriding complaint, runs the argument, the Prime Minister might be able to address it.
But when the critics are ideologically dispersed, united only in their conviction that Johnson should be removed, there is (we are told) nothing for him to do but to scurry bloodily through the bracken for a few more yards until – perhaps following the by-election results, or perhaps after the report of the Privileges Committee – the dogs finish him off.
Well, I don’t buy it. I don’t believe that Monday’s vote was about cake or even, more broadly, about character. Yes, parties were the issue for some MPs; but there were no new revelations to trigger the ballot. On the contrary, the investigations had concluded and the story was moving on.
No, the new factor was the announcement of additional taxes and subsidies two weeks ago. Many MPs who had defended Johnson throughout the parties saga felt as though they had been punched in the stomach. After all the assurances that the exceptional spending increases were over, and that any future surpluses would be used for tax cuts, here were the Prime Minister and Chancellor engaging what they had both previously described as an ineffective money-grab purely because it polled well.
One MP told me on the morning of the ballot, “I voted Leave, I voted for Boris and I backed him over all this Sue Grey bollocks. But what was the point if he and Rishi are now boasting about spending more than Labour?”
This was the cohort that moved into the “anti” column. Let’s call them (after the flinty fiscal conservative who succeeded ConHome’s editor as the MP for Wycombe) the Bakelites. They are not organised, and have no Whip. But at the end of last month, they individually reached the view that, despite all the promises of change made in February, the Prime Minister’s first instinct in any crisis was always to spaff public money up the wall.
The Bakelites could, in theory, be appeased by a change of policy. There are some MPs who loathe Johnson because he has sacked them or failed to promote them; some who will never forgive him for winning the 2016 referendum; some who think he is morally unfit for office; some who see him as an electoral liability. None of these groups can easily be turned around. But those who want a sense that the Prime Minister has a plan to tackle the economic crisis –they could yet be won back.
As Timothy Geithner put it when the banking crisis exploded, “a plan beats no plan”. The worry that Conservative MPs (and, indeed, Conservative voters) have is that the Prime Minister and Chancellor have no real idea of how to restore spending to pre-Covid levels, bring down inflation or grow our way out of the mess. Hence their panicky readiness to spend more – subsidising victims of inflation rather than tackling inflation itself.
It is not that solutions don’t exist. Rather, it is that any change means short-term unpopularity, since it upsets those who benefit from the status quo.
Consider what bringing down the cost of living might involve. We could lift tariffs and quotas on imported food, clothing and other consumer goods; but we don’t do so for fear of domestic lobbies. Johnson overruled his own trade remedies authority when it recommended scrapping the steel tariffs that the EU had imposed in retaliation against Donald Trump, for no reason other than lobbying from a handful of MPs.
We could build more homes, which would lower the cost of housing and of goods as well as making salaries more internationally competitive. The government recently published a White Paper on housing, largely inspired by Nick Boys Smith, which suggested denser but more beautiful Scrutonian buildings. It, too, was abandoned following pressure from some MPs.
The same timorousness applies across the board. Tax cuts would ease the cost of living, but there is a resolute refusal to contemplate the commensurate spending cuts. Sacking civil servants is overdue, but again unpopular. Moving away from the EU’s regulatory model would bring long-term gains, but no one wants to bear the upfront political costs. A “Netflix NHS” would (like Netflix) mean ending the state’s healthcare monopoly, like almost every country in Europe; but it would elicit scaremongering slogans about Selling Off Our NHS.
On one level, the Prime Minister knows what needs to be done. Shortly before Monday’s vote, he promised the 1922 committee that would bring down the cost of living, and spoke in terms of shrinking the state payroll. These should be obvious and uncontroversial reforms. We are not talking about creating some skeletal, Randian state for heaven’s sake; simply of returning to the plump and wheezy state that existed under Gordon Brown. Yet even that requires a willingness to court some short-term unpopularity.
Johnson could pull it off. He could, in a suitably Churchillian manner, lay out the seriousness of the economic catastrophe and call on people’s toughness to pull through it. But that would mean abandoning the vague, amiable breeziness which, though it served him well in easier times, is hideously unsuited to the present.
In his letter calling for a change in leadership, the brilliant Hereford MP Jesse Norman called for “warm, engaged, unifying and constructive leadership”. But at the moment, that is the last thing we need. Like a good teacher, a good Prime Minister needs to be prepared to be disliked. He needs to make hard choices, to pick sides, to send some people away unhappy. If Boris Johnson can do those things, he might yet save his premiership.
We shall have an almost immediate test of it when he publishes the legislation on the Northern Ireland Protocol, scheduled for this week. If the Bill, as trailed, removes the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over part of our country, then Boris is back in business. If it is delayed yet again, or amounts simply to a vague power for a future minister to do something or other, then we will know that no lessons have been learned and that, paradoxically, a fear of making unpopular choices ends up offending everybody.
The Prime Minister, in short, has one chance to recover. He won’t get another.