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How did Boris Johnson go from hero to zero in less than three years as prime minister? It wasn’t only about Partygate, though the Downing Street parties and Johnson’s woeful response to them was the catalyst for the confidence vote and became a symbol of his premiership.
Many Conservative MPs had doubts about Johnson when he succeeded Theresa May in 2019. The word in Toryland was that his support on the back benches was “wide but shallow.” Plenty of Tories had concerns about his character. They disliked his disloyalty towards May. He has now reaped what he sowed; his behaviour towards May is one reason why several Tories did not hesitate to call for a confidence vote in him.
However, his opponents range way beyond the group of “bitter Mayites waiting to take revenge” depicted by some Johnson allies. The doubts were put on the back burner when Johnson won his thumping majority of 80 at the 2019 general election, capturing a swathe of Labour seats in the red wall, and then claimed to have “got Brexit done”. Even Tory critics admitted no one else could have managed it.
The concerns did not take long to resurface. Johnson might have been a brilliant campaigner, but he struggled with the hard, messy slog and detail of governing. There were slogans like “levelling up” but even close allies admitted they had little idea of how to put that into practice.
Soon even that vital political priority was overshadowed by the pandemic. The need for lockdowns brought Johnson into conflict with a group of right-wing, mainly Eurosceptic backbenchers who should have been his loudest cheerleaders. To appease the libertarians, Johnson tacked right on policy, moving away from the one-nation conservatism that marked his eight years as mayor of London.
Although he became a convert to the green cause, encouraged by his wife Carrie and the approach of last November’s Cop26 climate summit in Glasgow, there was little follow-through once the conference ended.
Johnson alienated a large chunk of mainstream Tories who disliked the taste of his “red meat” and tendency to look for “wedge” issues that would divide the two main parties and the country. Moderates also baulked at Johnson’s cavalier approach to the rules of the international order. They believed he damaged the image of “global Britain” by twice threatening to legislate to overturn an international treaty with the EU, most recently on the Northern Ireland protocol.
The lurch to the right intensified in recent months as Johnson tried to placate the noisy, muscular group of right-wingers who eventually toppled May. There were attacks on the BBC, the proposed privatisation of Channel 4, a decision to send asylum seekers to Rwanda and silly stunts like a return to imperial measurements.
These angered Tory moderates but, crucially, did not satisfy right-wingers who felt Johnson had become “unConservative” by raising national insurance contributions in April, breaking the party’s 2019 manifesto pledges on tax, and then imposing a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. The right complained that the government had become Labour-lite and directionless. It was ominous when right-wingers such as David Davis and Steve Baker called on Johnson to resign.
The truth was that when he could not escape the shadow of Partygate, Johnson’s governing project became about one thing – his survival as PM. As Jesse Norman, the former Treasury minister and long-standing ally who came out against Johnson today, told him: “Under you the government seems to lack a sense of mission. It has a large majority but no long-term plan … Rather, you are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject and to create political and cultural dividing lines mainly for your advantage, at a time when the economy is struggling, inflation is soaring and growth is anaemic at best.” His damning letter reads like a political obituary.
Woundingly, Norman said Johnson had “presided over a culture of law-breaking at 10 Downing Street”. He spoke for many fellow Tories when he said Johnson’s claim to have been “vindicated” by the Sue Gray report was “grotesque”. The PM’s response provoked more letters calling for a confidence vote.
Indeed, it is clear Johnson would not be in his perilous position today if he had handled the Partygate crisis better. If he had not denied there were such events last December but had instead come clean with a genuine mea culpa rather than his “sorry not sorry” mantra, the last six months would have been very different. But the character flaws that his MPs knew about all along shone through: the gambler’s instinct was to dismiss, dissemble, obfuscate and delay.
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For a while, time proved a useful ally, with the help of the Metropolitan Police’s intervention. Johnson did stem the tide flowing against him by showing strong leadership on Ukraine. But that has proved a diminishing asset in recent weeks, as the war dragged on.
The Tory MPs who triggered the confidence vote have concluded, with good reason, that Johnson has turned from the undoubted electoral asset of 2019 into a liability. The evidence from the opinion polls is overwhelming: people are appalled by Partygate and think Johnson lied about it. Trust in him is shot, even among 2019 Tory voters. He is acting as a drag anchor on his party’s prospects: Rishi Sunak’s £15bn package to ease the cost of living squeeze failed to move the dial for voters. The pollster James Johnson branded Johnson a “Conservative Corbyn,” saying that policies that would be popular in themselves become unpopular when Johnson is associated with them.
The confidence vote might not bring about Johnson’s immediate fall. But it will be very difficult for him to heal the self-inflicted wounds which caused his dramatic decline.