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Voices: Only Boris Johnson would try to carry on after a vote like this

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They growled and they grunted, they barked and they brayed and they banged on their desks, but they couldn’t quite hold back the inevitable.

When Sir Graham Brady read out the numbers – 211 to 148 – they sat in their little oak-panelled room, doing the very best they could to pretend it hadn’t been a complete disaster. But it had.

You definitely can’t carry on in any meaningful way when you’ve taken a punch like that, though Boris Johnson will certainly try.

One hundred and forty-eight of the MPs who swore what was in effect their personal allegiance to him barely two and a half years ago have decided it’s not worth it any more. It is an unholy mess, entirely of his own making.

One rather big problem, which the prime minister arguably hadn’t worked out that he had, was that the single biggest reason he could find to tell his MPs to back him was an even bigger reason to get rid of him. He really did send them all letters, and then stood there in front of them, telling them that the vote was the chance to “draw a line” under all of this.

For several years now, I happen to have maintained a running list of the very stupidest things said by MPs, from which the only conclusion that can be drawn is that a very large number of them are very stupid indeed. But it is hard to imagine even the most stupid of them being unable to work out that the better way to “move on” from what was quite literally a crime would be to get rid of the bloke who did it, rather than keeping him on for several more years.

Quite a lot of them chose not to see the very clear writing on the wall. They all must have their reasons – not least among them, perhaps, being that the heir apparent had also accidentally self-immolated in the cabinet room cake ambush.

These apparently historic days now come around with such metronomic regularity that, for those who take part in them, their timetable is as familiar as a wedding. They start with a breathless announcement from Sir Graham Brady, though the news of what he is about to say will already have appeared online. The threshold has been reached. There’ll be a no-confidence vote. That happened at 8am.

Then MPs spend the day making public affirmations either backing or condemning the prime minister, which get tallied up by journalists seeking to calculate the outcome. (When the Tories last did this, in 2018, Theresa May was as good as safe by noon, at which point more than the 158 MPs she needed had publicly backed her. Johnson hadn’t made it to 180 even by the time the voting started.)

The familiarity of it all now makes the difference leap out. It is not unusual for MPs to publicly back the leader. It is fairly unusual for them to do as Andrea Jenkyns did, and record a message in the vestibule outside the toilets on a Northern Express train.

It is also unusual to do as Kit Malthouse did, declaring that there was “no one better than Boris Johnson to lead the fight against crime”. Could it really be news to the policing minister that at least 126 people have been fined for breaking the law inside Downing Street, and that one of those people is the prime minister himself? And then there’s also that rather tricky by-election in Wakefield in a fortnight’s time – a direct consequence of the incumbent Tory MP being convicted for sexually assaulting a child.

The next act in the grand pantomime involves a hastily arranged meeting of the rank-and-file MPs, to which Johnson dutifully turned up to make a last-ditch pitch to win over anyone who might be left to be won over.

It was at this point that things became more than a little peculiar. It is barely a week since Johnson was humbly apologising for the massive amounts of wrongdoing he’d overseen in Downing Street. And yet, when he was asked by backbenchers about the various illegal leaving dos he’d attended, he looked them in the eye and shouted, “I’d do it again!”

This was his pitch to the undecided, the unconvinced either way. I did nothing wrong and I’d do it all again. Because what could be needed, in the white heat of this unforgiving moment, more than a very clear reminder of exactly who he is, and an impassioned declaration that he absolutely, definitely isn’t going to change?

(There has, in the hours since, been some kind of conflagration about whether or not he really said these staggering words. It has now been clarified that he was speaking only about attending illegal leaving drinks. He wasn’t saying, for example, that he would allow his staff to have fights, and to throw up in the toilet, break his child’s swing, and abuse the cleaning staff. It’s only the illegal leaving drinks bit he’d do again. So that’s fine, apparently.)

And then things got even more peculiar. When the meeting ended, out strode a very senior member of Johnson’s team, whose name can’t be reported for mystifying reasons that make no sense at all, and told all the journalists hanging around outside the room: “Is there anyone here who’s never got pissed in their lives?”

That was the defence, deployed at this moment. You know, what’s the big deal? Everyone goes out and gets pissed, don’t they, so it’s fine.

Which they kind of do, except for that two-year period when they didn’t, because there was a pandemic on and it was illegal, and the people who made it illegal ignored all their own laws on the matter. Partygate has now gone on for more than a quarter of the length of the entire pandemic, and there are still very senior people in Downing Street who don’t have a clue what it’s about.

The next phase is when they all shuffle up and down the sweaty, bingo-hall-esque House of Commons corridor. Theresa May rocked up in a full ballgown and sparkling heels. On her way to some sort of jubilee celebration, apparently.

Four years ago, when she was going through this process herself, she wouldn’t even answer the question of whether or not she would be voting for herself, in a vote of confidence on her own leadership. It was one of the most ridiculous things she ever did. And yet Johnson, when he turned up, did exactly the same. As he moved through the bank of reporters asking him if he would vote for himself, he just emitted a low, barking, growling noise, which went on for several seconds.

It is well known that his tactic in interviews is just to say or do anything at all to avoid saying anything he doesn’t want to say. He has described this tactic of his as “becoming a blonde wall of noise”. Surely never before has the wall been reduced to this. To use not even words, but noises? To shut down questioners simply by growling as you pass them? And on this occasion, the questions did not get any more pressing than “Are you going to vote for yourself, prime minister?”

This, among other other things, made him look and sound like a man who was, quite literally, losing it. He looked a touch wistful – considering, perhaps, the many decades of appalling behaviour that had propelled him thus far. All the people screwed over, and for what exactly? For this?

It must be a tough moment, in the life of a narcissist as committed as he is, to consider that behind that door lies the moment at which you vote for yourself for the very last time. At least he got a last chance. Now, his many fans around the country – there could, theoretically, be as many as three left – may have to face up to the reality that they will surely never get to do so again.

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