To play the king
Despite two by-election defeats and partygate, Eddie Ford does not write off Boris Johnson quite yet
Following last week’s by-election defeats for the Conservative Party, there has been endless speculation about Boris Johnson’s political fate. For all of the hullabaloo, however, the results were not particularly surprising - they had long been predicted.
Regarding Wakefield, it was Labour’s first by-election gain since Corby in 2012 - reclaiming it with a majority of 4,925 votes and a 12.7% swing. Even without the cost of living crisis and partygate, it would have taken some doing for Labour to lose this election, given that the sitting Tory MP, Ahmad Khan, had been sentenced in May to 18 months in prison for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old male. Interestingly, George Galloway suggested at one point that he might stand in this by-election for his Workers Party of Britain - but it never happened. As for the unfortunate Tory candidate, Nadeem Ahmed, he got less than full support from Tory Party HQ - which was far more preoccupied with Tiverton. Johnson had been planning a trip to Wakefield, but cancelled at the last minute to visit Zelensky in Kyiv instead. Naturally, a jubilant Keir Starmer said the people of Wakefield had “exercised a judgment of no confidence” in the Conservative government.
However, in some respects, the Wakefield result is not quite what it seems - nor necessarily unalloyed good news for Starmer. Firstly, though normally described as a typical red wall seat, Wakefield has been marginal for 20 years. Secondly, there is the fact - or good guess - that many disaffected Tories voted for the independent candidate, Akef Akbar - a former Tory councillor who came third with 2,090 votes (7.7%) and has strongly criticised Boris Johnson over partygate. This feeds into the third point: that Labour’s share of the vote was nearly three points adrift of what Jeremy Corbyn achieved in the constituency in 2017 - the party under Starmer has gone backwards in that sense. In other words, Labour’s victory was more due to tactical voting against the Tories than any great enthusiasm for the official opposition - something much discussed by the media and pundits.
Obviously, it almost goes without saying that, were the Lib Dems to unseat a relatively sizeable number of Tory MPs at the next general election, that would not harm Keir Starmer’s chances of becoming prime minister. But if he is to stand any chance of winning an overall majority for Labour, rather than becoming the leader of the largest party with a lot of haggling and deal-brokering ahead of him, it does seem that his main priority has to be persuading people who voted Tory in 2019 to switch directly over - or in many cases back - to Labour. This is a formidable task and success is far from guaranteed for Starmer. But, whatever sections of the left might stupidly say, he is clearly hungry to wear the crown.
Therefore he will continue with his prime minister in waiting strategy. Labour’s front bench will not back the RMT strikes against a real pay cut, compulsory sackings, longer hours, etc. Nor will it back Heathrow workers, teachers, criminal barristers, healthworkers either. Of course, this supposedly shocks the likes of Owen Jones, The Guardian’s house‑trained ‘leftwinger’ - with the prospect of a long, hot summer of disputes, the refusal to side with striking workers gives Labour an “identity crisis”, he claims with feigned naivety (June 28). But opposing strikes is the history of Labour leaderships going back to the days of Keir Hardie and Ramsay MacDonald. Nor were Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, John Smith, Neil Kinnock or Ed Miliband any different. Just like his predecessors, Sir Keir wants to assure the bourgeoisie that Labour would be a responsible government.
Prompted by the by-election defeats - perhaps as well by the mini-scandal over attempts by Boris Johnson to get a cushy government job for his then girlfriend and now wife, Carrie Johnson - the co-chairman of the party, Oliver Dowden, dramatically resigned. Up until then, the only exceptional thing about him was his unswerving loyalty to Johnson - always appearing on the airwaves to spout the party line and defend his boss’s latest idiotic comment or behaviour. Nothing was ever too humiliating for Dowden.
So the fact that such a toady resigned was not without significance. In his resignation statement, Dowden said that “we cannot carry on with business as usual” and “somebody must take responsibility” - ie, Boris Johnson. The next day, former Tory leader Michael Howard told the BBC’s World at one that the party and the country would be “better off” under new leadership - adding that cabinet ministers should “consider resigning” and that party rules should be changed to allow for a new confidence vote in the prime minister. Similarly, Steve Baker of the European Research Group - arch-Brexiteer and another former Johnson devotee - declared to The Guardian that, like so many backbench MPs, “I am looking to the cabinet for leadership, especially from those who aspire to be seen to provide it”.
Maybe in a sign of desperation, some unhappy MPs have their eye on Penny Mordaunt, a senior minister and potential leadership candidate, as a possibility for the first to quit - mainly because she was quite vocal in her criticisms of partygate. Clutching at straws, others believe Michael Gove could be a contender to walk, having turned on Johnson before by abruptly withdrawing support for him during the 2016 leadership campaign - an act described by The Daily Telegraph as “the most spectacular political assassination in a generation”. Apparently, some in No10 are suspicious about Gove, with one senior Downing Street aide believing he cannot be trusted and is “on manoeuvres”.
Yet no cabinet minister has resigned so far, nor shown any signs of doing so. Indeed, many are doubling down on their support for the prime minister - sincere or not. Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, has been at pains to express support for Johnson, whilst deputy prime minister Dominic Raab has toured the media in a demonstration of loyalty and Liz Truss was by Johnson’s side in Kigali for the Commonwealth summit. This was much to the frustration of one former cabinet minister, who said that anyone with guts “would walk and make themselves instantly into the favourite to take over” - the unnamed MP was both “surprised and disappointed that no-one has so far”. Myself, I am not in the slightest bit surprised - going over the top prematurely could complete scupper your chances of ever becoming leader. Better to keep your powder dry.
Nor is there any indication whatsoever that Boris Johnson is going to change tack - quite the opposite if anything. Whilst admitting that the by-election results were not “brilliant”, he was quick to emphasise that he was not about to “undergo some sort of psychological transformation” - who would believe that anyway? In fact, as he said to journalists in Rwanda, he was “actively thinking” about a third term in office - planning to be in Downing Street until well into the 2030s, as he regarded the issues around his leadership to have been “settled” by the January 6 confidence vote, in which 148 MPs (41% of the parliamentary party) deciding that he was not up for the job of prime minister. But a narrow majority thought he was.
Naturally, Johnson’s Tory critics have called his remarks about a third term “delusional”. Yes, there might be some truth to that. On the other hand, the rebels seem even more delusional - how are they going to get rid of the prime minister? Arguably getting even more desperate, MPs from both the 2019 intake and the One Nation group of anti-Johnson Tories have raised the prospect of using the upcoming elections to the 1922 Committee - all 18 posts are up for grabs - to stage a constitutional coup and fill it with members who would vote through changes to the rules, which the body can do at any time.
Current party rules state that, once the prime minister has won, there cannot be another confidence vote for 12 months. A source familiar with the scheming said that a six-month gap between confidence votes is seen as preferable, because it would provide “enough time to give [Johnson] a chance for a reset, but is not long enough to drag it out” - thus “it would avoid a lengthy, drawn out, slow death”. By then, the rebels hope, the Commons privileges committee - which is investigating whether Johnson “misled” parliament over his partygate comments - is expected to have come to a conclusion. True, when Theresa May survived a no confidence vote - by a bigger majority than Johnson - she was told by the 1922 chairman that, unless she set a timetable for her departure, the rules could be changed to allow another challenge. She blinked, but it is hard to see Johnson doing the same. Then what?
After all, it is equally the case that the government might also try to flood the committee with its own backers. In the words of one MP on the committee: “Changing the rules is what you’d expect from a remainer-backed campaign. First it was a second referendum, now it’s a second confidence vote. What’s next? A second leadership election …” Another committee member complained that changing the rules would be “Maoist”, asking: “What next? Would we change the rules to have a vote every time we didn’t like a policy?” Any crude or bungled attempt to change the political composition of the committee could cause a backlash - making its members more loyal to the rules and hence indirectly to the prime minister, not less. As for the privileges committee, it is pretty easy to see Johnson blustering his way through it - no, of course I did not intend to deliberately mislead parliament, and so on.
The 1922 Committee elections are expected to be completed before parliament goes into its summer recess on July 21, but it is very unlikely that anything decisive is going to happen until autumn when the enquiry chaired by Harriet Harman - Tory attempts to block her failed - first questions Johnson in order to determine whether or not he deliberately misled parliament over the No10 parties. By that time an awful lot will have happened. No wonder that Johnson supporters in the cabinet are reportedly bullish about his chances of surviving, if not enjoying a revival. Any big national or international event, such as a twist in the pandemic or the Ukraine war - even more so the death of the queen - could quickly transform the political landscape.
It would be foolish indeed to write off Boris Johnson ... just for the moment.