The cult of Boris Johnson – and his Brexit dream – are imploding

Boris Johnson listens as a clip is shown of him addressing the Commons on Dec 1, 2021, during his appearance before the privileges committee on Wednesday - PRU/AFP
Boris Johnson listens as a clip is shown of him addressing the Commons on Dec 1, 2021, during his appearance before the privileges committee on Wednesday - PRU/AFP

It is almost 30 years since the Maastricht rebellion reached its peak in the spring/summer of 1993, precipitating the eventual demise of John Major’s government and paving the way for the 2016 EU referendum.

Followers of Conservative politics could therefore be forgiven for wondering how on Earth it had come to pass that one of those veteran Eurosceptics, Sir Bernard Jenkin, should find himself – three decades later – seemingly trying to bring down the man who finally “got Brexit done”.

For as the long-standing Tory MP for Harwich and North Colchester grilled the former prime minister on whether or not he had lied to Parliament over partygate, the distant sound of a fat lady singing could be heard slowly permeating through the corridors of power.

When he resigned as prime minister, Mr Johnson hinted at making a Cincinnatus-style comeback.

But as he appeared before the privileges committee on Wednesday – at the very moment Rishi Sunak’s Brexit deal was sailing through the Commons – there was something last days of Rome-ish about the seminal events simultaneously playing out in Westminster.

Not only had a major Tory rebellion on the Windsor Framework spectacularly failed to materialise but here too was Brexit’s blond-haired poster boy struggling to take back control of his own political future.

Students of classics may perhaps have been reminded of the quote by Pericles, Mr Johnson’s ancient Athenian hero: “Your empire is now like a tyranny: it may have been wrong to take it; it is certainly dangerous to let it go.”

“Big Dog” was once able to galvanise enough backbench support to bring down Theresa May and her Chequers deal.

But as he spent the afternoon reduced to the role of unruly bulldog, refusing to be brought to heel by Harriet Harman, who chairs the committee, not even his old Vote Leave comrades appeared willing to throw him a bone.

Instead, MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of Mr Sunak’s offering, backing it 515 to 29 – a majority of 486, including 280 Tories.

The once mighty European Research Group (ERG) – the infamous caucus of staunch Brexiteer Conservatives who helped to propel Mr Johnson to power in 2019 – barely caused a ripple, despite Mark Francois, its chairman, having described the “Stormont brake” as “practically useless”.

While the likes of Mr Francois, Sir John Redwood, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, Sir Bill Cash and Priti Patel could not be persuaded to break their  Eurosceptic habit of a lifetime, fellow “Spartans” including Suella Braverman and Steve Baker fell by the wayside, now on Team Sunak’s side.

The Boris Brexit bus hadn’t just broken down – it appeared a write-off.

And while it has always been argued that one should never write off the man who twice won London, along with an 80-seat Tory majority, the car crash that unfolded in the Grimond Room suggests the end of the road may well have been reached.

The somewhat unexpected new-found show of unity (exemplified by Kwasi Kwarteng, of all people, supporting Jeremy Hunt’s high tax budget at the weekend) appears to signal not just a ceasefire in the Tory party’s war on Europe but perhaps also a cessation of fighting in the Boris battle royale.

By rowing in behind what appears to be yet another contract of compromises with Brussels, Conservatives seem to be saying they are not just tired of squabbling about Brexit but also of engaging in internal warfare over whether Mr Johnson is a knight in shining armour or a loose cannon.

Many Tory backbenchers, desperate to hold on to their seats come 2024, will have looked upon the former prime minister swearing on the holy Bible and insisting: “Hand on heart, I did not lie to the House” and rightly wondered if the Boris bubble has finally burst.

Moreover, with the latest survey by Deltapoll finding that the gap between Labour and the Tories has narrowed to just 10 points, they will be equally justified in thinking that the power balance has been firmly tipped in favour of his successor.

After landing his Brexit deal, confirming the AUKUS submarine programme, bringing in new legislation to “stop the boats” and contributing to Nicola Sturgeon’s demise by threatening to block her Gender Recognition (Reform) Bill, the Prime Minister hasn’t just steadied the Conservative ship but is also actively steering it out of choppy waters (notwithstanding the local election iceberg ahead).

That, combined with “Captain Hindsight” Sir Keir Starmer’s seeming inability to come up with any persuasive Labour policies to fill the opposition void, puts Mr Sunak in the strongest position of his premiership so far.

The latest partygate probe may well prove to be an after-the-fact stitch up – but Mr Johnson made his bed and it seems his Conservative colleagues are increasingly content with him lying in it.