Voices: The greased piglet escapes yet again – but at what cost?

·5-min read

I had hoped that my last weekly column in The Independent would coincide with a turning point in British politics: the end of the Johnson era. No such luck. The greased piglet has escaped from his tormentors again, the most recent of many close shaves that he has survived. He may end up as someone’s pork sausage, but not for a while.

The vote of no confidence – 148 out of 359 – was insufficient to defeat him but big enough to cause injury: a docked tail and bruised trotters. He can and will try to tough it out and has a year before he can be challenged again. But he will be taunted at every turn with reference to the size of backbench opposition (the arithmetic suggests that barely a third of backbenchers, not on the government payroll, voted for him). The spectre of “the 1922” changing its own rules to challenge him again sooner than a year will loom large.

It could have been worse. It seems likely that, in addition to the rebels, some of his allies, who saw their jobs and importance disappearing, encouraged a “no confidence” vote before one was forced on them by yet more bad news: the likely defeat to Labour and the Lib Dems in two pending by-elections. Better for the PM to fight now and win, earning a year’s breathing space, than wait for his growing unpopularity to become unsustainable.

Even the most loyal of Tory MPs have begun to realise that the prime minister is a political liability. Party members, let alone the wider public, have become disgusted by the casual dishonesty and the decline in standards in public life. Partygate was a symbol of that sleaziness, but only part of it. On top of the loss of trust engendered by law-breaking at the top of government, the general sense of drift over the economic crisis enveloping the country, and the lack of consistent political direction have become corrosive.

The latest rebels to emerge, such as Jesse Norman – husband of Kate Bingham who led the successful vaccine task force – expressed their disdain for their leader in the kind of excoriating terms one would expect from opposition politicians. And the opposition parties have been given an enormous cache of weapons to fire at the government in the form of helpful quotes from disillusioned Tories.

What has kept the prime minister from an earlier challenge, and from defeat on the night, is the fear that the next leader could be worse: lacking Johnson’s undoubted political and communication skills; unable to hold together the messy, unstable coalition that is the Conservative Party. Either an unelectable, uncompromising ideologue would emerge from the party’s right wing; or someone sensible and electable would win, who would enrage the party grassroots; even, horror of horrors, a Remainer.

Dominic Cummings, who now seems to have devoted his life to destroying his former boss, worries publicly that the party may now get someone much worse; he singles out Liz Truss, currently second-favourite for the leadership amongst Tories. The favourite, Ben Wallace, has achieved his elevated status solely for being a competent-sounding defence secretary during a war in which British servicemen are not involved.

For now, a narrow majority of Tory MPs have decided: better the devil we know. But the margin is small enough to create continual, lingering uncertainty. We can now expect to see potential replacements out on manoeuvres while pledging undying loyalty to the leader. It promises to be very messy.

Meanwhile, the government will stagger on. It is possible that Tory opposition will begin to consolidate behind one of many prospective challengers. It is possible that a senior minister will walk away and precipitate a new crisis. It is possible that Boris Johnson may conclude that mere survival is no fun and that there is more satisfaction to be derived from working on his Shakespeare biography. But everything in his past suggests someone unlikely to give up. Rather we may see his talent for escapology reaching new heights.

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One of the prime minister’s first tasks will be to narrow the focus of the government’s programme to what is essential, and to what minimises the risk of large-scale backbench rebellion on key votes. Pushing ahead with privatisation of Channel 4, creating a trade war with the EU over the Northern Irish protocol or selling off the little remaining social housing is the kind of cultural warfare which may not be sustainable in his politically weakened state. By contrast, persuading the equally damaged Rishi Sunak to shake the magic money tree and deliver a big tax cut will surely have become a priority.

The opposition parties must believe that Christmas has come early, thinking “save Boris; sink the Tories”. But there are traps ahead. Victory in the two by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton is now priced in, and will not have much additional shock value. Keir Starmer still isn’t out of the woods over alleged breaches of lockdown rules. And as the government struggles and wriggles, the question will increasingly be asked: what would you lot do instead?

It isn’t difficult to craft a list of deliverable undertakings which could be woven into a persuasive, forward-looking narrative: making food banks history; a big boost to affordable homes to buy or rent; removing barriers to renewables like onshore wind; making things again through a serious industrial strategy; a tax-funded investment in schools and colleges; reviving apprenticeships. But it requires considerable flair to convert sensible, worthy policy into what Obama called “the audacity of hope”.

Nonetheless, Labour and the Lib Dems now face the challenge of creating that vision. Johnson and the Tories will not surrender power meekly, whatever their currently parlous state. We cannot write off the greased piglet until he is safely on the butcher’s slab.

Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats. His podcast ‘Cable Comments’ is available here

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