A failed revolt and an ‘embarrassing’ display: the week that saw Boris Johnson’s downfall
For more than three decades the prospect of Tory MPs rebelling over Europe struck fear into the hearts of Conservative prime ministers. And for good reason. The premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May were all scarred and ultimately destroyed by arguments over the UK’s involvement in the European project.
Last Wednesday, however, something changed. A key vote on the Northern Ireland protocol passed through the House of Commons with ease, as the threat of a large Tory backbench uprising melted away. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was told by the Tory whips even before the vote took place that there was nothing serious to worry about. The debate preceding it had lacked the Tory rancour to which the House of Commons had long become accustomed when discussing European issues.
Some hardline Eurosceptics had played up the dangers to Sunak and warned that trouble was brewing. But most minds were elsewhere. Many Maastricht warriors of days gone by, the likes of Bernard Jenkin, who was preoccupied with interrogating Boris Johnson over Partygate, either abstained or backed the government.
In the Commons, long-time EU critics David Davis and Andrea Leadsom went out of their way to praise Sunak’s negotiating success with Brussels, as did many other veteran Eurosceptics. Leadsom described the Sunak deal as “superb” and called for pragmatism. “Let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good: let us move forward as one United Kingdom,” she said.
Ideological arguments over sovereignty that had obsessed and split the party since the 1980s suddenly seemed not to matter so much. They had run their course. The vast majority of Tory MPs, not to mention the nation, had had enough and wanted to move on.
A notable exception, however, was Johnson. Wednesday was supposed to be the day when the former prime minister and man most responsible for Brexit would mount a comeback on two fronts in the Commons.
First, so his supporters predicted, he would be “vindicated” during a televised appearance before the Commons privileges committee which was to grill him that afternoon over claims that he misled parliament over parties inside Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Bullish Boris up for the fight,” said the Daily Mail on the morning of his appearance.
And second, Johnson’s supporters briefed, he would lead another epic Tory rebellion over Europe the same afternoon, voting against Sunak’s deal in the Commons. In so doing the hope was that he would wound Sunak, the man who had betrayed him by resigning as chancellor, prove he still had strong support on the backbenches, and advance his chances of making a sensational return to No 10. Another ex-prime minister, Liz Truss, also let it be known in advance that she too would vote against.
But when it came, the great rebellion led by the ex-PMs was anything but. It was remarked upon more because of its meagre size (only 20 Tory MPs joined Johnson and Truss in voting against) than for any damage it caused to the current prime minister. “It is over for him,” said one former Tory minister shortly after. “This was Rishi’s moment. The Conservative party has moved on.” Contrary to what Johnson had intended, the result strengthened Sunak no end, demonstrating where authority now lay and drawing a line under the past. A senior government source said: “There was talk beforehand of two ex-prime ministers mustering their troops but we didn’t believe it. The truth was the troops weren’t there. There weren’t the numbers worth speaking of.”
It has unquestionably been a terrible few days for Johnson, worse probably than his exit from No 10 last summer, a period through which, in the minds of many Tories, he managed to retain the status of Brexit hero despite everything.
Now, with evidence mounting of the damage that leaving the EU has done to the economy and the country, many Tory MPs recognise he is no longer the force he was, irrespective of Partygate.
Paul Goodman, the former Conservative MP who now edits ConservativeHome, said there was still plenty of residual affection for Johnson at the party’s grassroots, as shown by his website’s surveys of Tory members, “but people now just want to be governed effectively”. The view of most party members was that he should not return as prime minister.
In front of the privileges committee, Johnson had cut an increasingly desperate figure, implausibly arguing that a series of leaving parties for staff at No 10 had been absolutely essential for the running of the country.
Perhaps the most devastating questioning came from Jenkin, Johnson’s fellow Eurosceptic. Jenkin asked Johnson what he would have said at a Covid press conference had he been quizzed as to whether a business could hold “unsocially distanced farewell gatherings” during lockdown. Johnson replied that he would have said it was up to the businesses how to interpret the guidance.
People who remembered being unable to see their dying relatives because of Covid rules were furious. A man who called in to the Nick Ferrari show on LBC broke down in tears, while Mick Hucknall, lead singer of Simply Red, joined a chorus of denunciation on Twitter declaring at 3.13pm that: “While Boris Johnson was having his leaving drinks party, like millions of others, I was disallowed to say goodbye to my dying father-in-law In hospital. You despicable lying BASTARD!”
Johnson claimed that his advisers told him that all the rules that he himself had made – and daily ordered the nation to obey, to help save lives – had been complied with, despite ample photographic and documentary evidence that the committee had marshalled to demonstrate precisely the contrary. A former Tory minister said he had to stop watching because it became “painful and embarrassing”.
The privileges committee session was interrupted several times as the Commons bell rang to tell MPs to go to vote. At about 3.15pm a stony-faced Johnson strode off from the committee room and was joined by the veteran Eurosceptic diehard John Redwood, one of the 20 Tories who joined his rebellion on the Europe vote. “Yesterday’s men,” was how a Labour MP described them en route to the division lobbies.
After almost four hours of questions, “team Johnson” informed journalists that “allies of Boris” were gathering in the central lobby of the House of Commons to brief them, presumably about Boris’s triumph. Over the next 20 minutes no Johnson allies appeared until, finally, just one showed up – Brendan Clarke-Smith, who insisted the ex-PM had put in a “robust” performance and did not deserve to be censured. But this was a minority view.
The next morning the verdict of the rightwing press was startling. The Daily Telegraph which, according to Dominic Cummings, Johnson had regularly referred to in No 10 as his “real boss”, ran a piece of analysis by its associate editor Camilla Tominey under the headline: “The cults of Boris and Brexit are simultaneously imploding.” Tominey wrote that “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”. The Sun ran an editorial declaring that it was time Johnson and others recognised that, almost seven years on from the vote to leave the EU, “it is time to accept this: the Brexit war is over”.
For Johnson, the political way ahead is unclear. The privileges committee will reach its conclusion in the coming weeks on whether it believes he misled parliament. If the committee concludes he did it will recommend a punishment, that will then be voted on by MPs. If the committee and parliament were to vote to ban him for at least 10 days, that could trigger a recall petition leading to a byelection in his Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency that it is by no means certain he would win.
For Sunak, however, such an outcome would not be all good news. Goodman points out that a byelection in Uxbridge would in many ways be a “disaster” for the Tories because Johnson would want to be the candidate and decisions would have to be made about whether and to what extent the party threw its weight behind him. “Do they really want that? Do they go and canvass for him? Does Rishi go and canvass for him?” asked Goodman.
In Downing Street and at Tory HQ these matters can be parked for now. They are what the spin doctors call “hypotheticals”. Within the Sunak inner circle there is quiet satisfaction that Johnson, for now at least, is in retreat. Coverage of Johnson’s travails has numerous advantages for the PM. Amid the media noise over Partygate on Wednesday, and with eyes elsewhere, Sunak was able to bury the publication of his own tax return – showing he earned almost £4.8m in three years but paid a tax rate in effect of only 22% – so the story attracted far less media attention than it would otherwise have done.
More importantly, though, the greatest single threat to Sunak’s chances of remaining as prime minister until the next election – a Johnson revival – has effectively been removed. At No 10 the focus is now on delivery and returning to politics as normal. With May’s local elections approaching, the task is to demonstrate that the current prime minister is more competent than the two who have gone before, and that Sunak and the Conservative party can put up a fight against Keir Starmer and Labour, which is still a long way ahead in the opinion polls.
On Monday the SNP will unveil its new leader, the successor to Nicola Sturgeon, after a troubled and divisive leadership contest. That will further add to the impression that politics is now entering a new post-Johnsonian phase ahead of the next general election. The Tory peer and polling expert Robert Hayward said the Conservatives were already showing some small, tentative signs of a revival in recent polls and council byelections. But the challenge for Sunak and his party would be to convey the impression that the government is somehow part of a new and fresh Tory project rather than the culmination of the 13 years that went before.
“Can they sell the idea to the electorate of a second Rishi term, rather than a fifth Tory term?” Lord Hayward wondered. While Sunak still has a long way to go, Boris Johnson’s problems over recent days have arguably removed the single biggest obstacle from his path.