BY JAMES BALDWIN
Boris Johnson leaving Downing Street for PMQ's on February 2nd 2022.
Boris Johnson appeared to have gotten through Prime Minister’s Questions relatively unharmed. Despite a fiery performance from Sir Keir Starmer, the Prime Minister had managed to hold the support of his backbenchers – until its conclusion, however. David Davis, a Tory grandee and previous ally of Mr. Johnson, took centre stage and told the Prime Minister: ‘You have sat there too long for all the good you have done. In the name of God, go’.
The attack was scathing. It had been quoted from 1940 when Sir Leopold Amery stood on those same green benches and called for the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Three days later, Chamberlain was gone, and Winston Churchill had taken his place.
A lot more than three days have passed since Davis made the attack, and Johnson still presides over Number 10. This is despite an ensuing scandal over numerous parties which were held in the Downing Street vicinity during lockdown, some of which were attended by the Prime Minister. At first, the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case, was told to investigate these allegations. In the true incompetent fashion which has beset this administration, it turned out that he himself had attended a party. The matter was then passed on to Sue Gray, a top Civil Servant, and a name now synonymous in British politics.
Indeed, the allegations became so strong that twelve parties were eventually taken under investigation by the Metropolitan Police. A week before the Sue Gray report was set to release, this severely constrained what she could say. Yet the message contained in the update was still tough in its wording and damning of a Prime Minister who has lost any sense of a responsibility to lead.
Two main points emerged from its contents. First, that there were ‘failures of leadership and judgement’ by Number 10 and the Cabinet Office. Not only does this state Johnson’s own inability to take control of his premiership, but also draws attention to the flaws in the structure and system surrounding the Head of Government. In her final point, she criticised the fragmentation within Number 10 – prompting the Prime Minister to announce the establishment of a Prime Ministers’ Department. Second, Gray criticised ‘serious’ failings to observe both the high standards expected of the Government and of the British people at the time. In critiquing the administrations’ competence, the wording also gives off the impression that there is indeed one rule for them and another rule for us.
Despite the welcome announcement of a Prime Ministers’ Department, Johnson’s response to the rest was lacking – repeatedly asking the House of Commons to wait for the police’s conclusion. He also promised to ‘look in the mirror’ and improve in the future. True to his mere nature, however, he repeated a far-right trope just five minutes later – falsely claiming that Sir Keir had failed to prosecute Jimmy Savile, a prolific paedophile. You would rightly believe that this gives off the impression of a man who has no intention to change.
The claim provoked outcry from Tory MPs and some of his most trusted aides. Later in the week, there were numerous resignations from Number 10. Some cited other reasons, but Munira Mirza, his policy chief since his days as Mayor of London, did not. This signals the distaste emerging from even the Prime Minister’s closest allies.
Yet the subsequent appointments in the aftermath of those resignations appear to have settled the Tory ship. The appointees, like Steve Barclay as Chief of Staff, appeal to the Brexiteer-driven party. And, despite the slow trickle of letters of no-confidence being sent to the 1922 Committee, it seems that Johnson will avoid a no-confidence vote for the moment.
The Prime Minister is hanging on by a thread, nonetheless. The slight steadying of late may only be delaying the inevitable. But then the question turns to one of how he goes. He will not resign himself – his individual pride and ego overpower any situation where that would be required. After all, he has spent the best part of twenty years with a clear sight at the top office. But does he have any interest in doing what is right for the country? The Sue Gray report, and constant pandering to his own party, suggests not. His own words on the Tory party paint it as a ‘vast organism animated […] above all by the pursuit and retention of power’. Power is the priority.
This is why the local elections in May are critical in assessing where his premiership heads. A crushing defeat for the Conservatives may be the tipping point for his MPs. If they feel that Johnson has become an electoral liability rather than the asset he has shown himself to be thus far, they will not risk keeping him in his place. Polls currently suggest that many of the new Red Wall seats that the Tories won for the first time in 2019 could return to Labour.
It will eventually come down to the Tory Party itself if they want to get rid of Johnson. They must recognise that ridding Downing Street of him would be a wise move for the nation. With a cost-of-living crisis submerging all, Johnson is instead distracted by a police investigation into parties at his own house. That cannot be acceptable for a leader of this country.
Image Source: Flickr (Number 10)