ConservativeHome’s list of who is supporting whom only tells our readers so much. An MP can declare that he is supporting Boris Johnson, Penny Mordaunt or Rishi Sunak, but not send a letter nominating any of them to Graham Brady.
Or he could say that he is supporting one of them and nominate another. The only man who would know the truth is Brady, who won’t be publishing a nominations list. All he is obliged to do is count the nominations letters, and then declare who has and hasn’t passed the ballot threshold.
And even Brady won’t know how his colleagues vote in the event of an election. An MP could declare that he is supporting a candidate, nominate another…and vote for yet another. Meet “the most sophisticated electorate in the world”.
So while our who-backs-whom list is a useful resource, its total of 56 nominations for Johnson isn’t definitive. But let’s assume for the purposes of this article that he wins the required 100 nominations, doesn’t strike a deal with Rishi Sunak, stands for election – and comes second among MPs but first with the party membership.
We will find out on Tuesday what the ConservativeHome members’ panel has to tell us, after we issue a survey tomorrow afternoon, in the wake of nominations closing (assuming that at least two candidates clear the required threshold).
But my sense is that Johnson would win the membership ballot. Reactions to his candidacy vary from frenzied enthusiasm to stark horror but, for many members, he is not merely the legitimate leader, who should never have been deposed, so much as what they’re used to – and Tory members, being Conservatives, like what they’re used to.
They will cling to Johnson as a child clings to a toy in the dark. He is their great big blond teddy bear – a source of comfort and reassurance in a bewildering world.
At any rate, he would in this scenario return to Downing Street as Prime Minister, and there would be three immediate consequences. First, as Greg Hands keeps pointing out, he would be unable to form a coherent Government. Maybe other Conservative MPs would follow Roger Gale’s lead and resign the whip, and maybe not.
Some of the threats may be a bluff, and we’ve heard it all before: the same was said before Johnson became Tory leader in 2019, and came to nothing.
But whether the Conservative Commons majority falls or not, Hands’s point is that over 60 Tory MPs resigned from Johnson’s Government as it fell apart less than six months ago. Some of them would doubtless take his shilling, pleading the national interest. I wouldn’t blame any of them for a moment.
Others will see it differently. The decision will be a dilemma. For example, Kemi Badenoch writes in today’s Sunday Times, declaring for Rishi Sunak, that “this is no time for cakeism”.
Would Badenoch and others, were Johnson to become Prime Minister, serve under him, and so have their cake and eat it? I don’t know, but to some degree a Johnson Government would be a Salon des Refusés, in many cases staffed by second and third choices, some of them manifestly not up to the job.
Admittedly, voters wouldn’t notice and wouldn’t care – at least, not until the results became visible. One of these would do so very quickly: the Johnson Risk Premium, as one analyst called it on Friday.
“This morning, bearing in mind that lots of factors affect these things, it does look as though a bit of a “Johnson risk premium” is being priced in, in that the spread between US and UK 10-year government bonds has widened again, after spending recent days tightening,” Bloomberg reported.
Good for savers, bad for borrowers – including business and government, which was forecast earlier this year to pay £87 billion of debt interest during it.
The Conservatives currently lag Labour by 21 points to 54 points in Politicos Poll of Polls. There might be a Johnson bounce on his return, but how long would it last, as mortgage rates rose and firms went bust, amidst the tax rises and spending cuts that Johnson would have no choice but to preside over?
And that’s without such dramatic scenarios as a gilts strike (“dunno, hard to tell,” one City writer told me, “they can usually get away with it, it would just be very expensive”) and a housing market collapse.
I have left the most destabilising factor until last. Prepare for some 40 hours of oral evidence, including three public sessions a week, as the Privileges Committee inquiry into Johnson opens next month.
His first full month in office would thus be dominated by televised proceedings whose focus would be on whether or not the rehabilitated Prime Minister is a liar – as James Johnson’s famous wordcloud of voter views declares him to be. What would that do for Tory poll ratings, market stability or family living standards?
It gets better (or rather worse). “Number Ten officials are preparing to testify against Boris Johnson in the parliamentary inquiry into Downing Street parties,” the Times reported yesterday.
“Downing Street has handed over documents, emails, pictures and messages to the committee. A source with knowledge of the evidence told The Sun: “Boris is screwed’.” For what it’s worth, these spectacular proceedings, with their public hearings, have the smell of a show trial to me.
But my view will scarcely matter if it gets better still, and the committee recommends Johnson’s suspension from the Commons. It will be the Owen Paterson imbroglio reborn – expect this time with a sitting Prime Minister.
How would a suspended Prime Minister govern? What if he faced a by-election petition, as he almost certainly would? How would the Conservative whips recommend that Tory MPs vote? Johnson’s most committed backers would surely want a three liner against any suspension motion. With the whip withdraw for dissidents.
There’s an old saying that, if your overdraft is big enough, you don’t owe the bank – the bank owes you. But while that may not be true of overdrafts, it is certainly true of rebellions. There is safety in numbers.
The Government has a formal majority of 72, but the Party is in no position to remove the whip were 36 or so Conservative MPs to revolt, as in the Paterson case. There is reason to believe that the number, in today’s faction-torn Parliamentary Party, would be larger. Any attempt to force a three line whip would surely fail.
No rational observer would be surprised were the next episode of the Johnson comedy to be a by-election in his Uxbridge seat forced by a Parliamentary inquiry which had declared him a liar.
Could he win? What if he did so, and then faced “letters”? What he faced letters anyway? What if he lost the by-election – and the Party girded itself up for its fifth leadership election in some seven years? What figure do you think the Conservative poll rating would settle at?
Do those 2019 Red Wallers backing Johnson now think it would be different in their seats? How many Party members understand that the Johnson joke is on them?
This is the logical destination of the Totentanz, the Conservative dance of death – as Johnson, like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, flutes Tory MPs, donors and activists to their doom. The Rishi Sunak candidacy is not exactly unproblematic. But on nothing like the scale of this.
“When, lo, as they reached the mountain’s side, / A wondrous portal opened wide, / As if a cavern was suddenly hollowed; / And the Piper advanced and the children follow’d, / And when all were in to the very last, / The door in the mountain side shut fast.”