It’s a topsy turvy world when your friends and allies do you all kinds of damage and then your enemies and detractors accidentally ride to the rescue.
But that’s what’s going on in the life of Boris Johnson. His lax approach to the conduct of his own circle is a major factor in his popularity slump. Whether that be backing Owen Paterson, wilfully being taken in by partying Downing Street staffers or over-indulging his wife’s focus on animal rights, utopian environmentalism and support for the Stonewall agenda.
Yet now the cavalry has appeared over the brow of the hill and it is made up of people who wish to bring him down. But they serve only to remind the Tory tribe why it turned to him in the first place. First there is Lord Adonis whose take on the Boris crisis is that removing him will allow the Remainer establishment to set to work on ripping the guts out of Brexit.
‘A change of Prime Minister needs to precipitate a fundamental change of policy on Europe to get us back into the customs union and single market. It has got to correct the fundamental error of the Johnson premiership, not continue it,’ tweets the ermine-clad Brexit-blocker.
This will set off helpful alarm bells among the Leave fraternity, reminding them of the efforts two years ago by establishment Remainers to have Johnson replaced with a figure such as Harriet Harman or Ken Clarke running a ‘government of national unity’ (copyright all anti-Brexit broadcasters).
Next the lanky limbs of the Maybot come crashing back into view, about as welcome as an alien invader from an H.G. Wells novel. A few months back Mrs May panned Johnson for the collapse of western policy in Afghanistan — as if any British leader could have masterminded a continued coalition operation in that country in the absence of the US. Then she lined up as an unlikely libertarian opposing his latest Covid measures. Now it is being reported that her allies — mainly former ministers with an inflated regard for themselves and a belief they should still be running the country — are involved in an ‘operation revenge’ to bring down Johnson just as the Brexiteers brought her down.
Again, the spectre of May will surely remind millions of voters that Johnson once had his uses, even if they are hard to pinpoint right now. After all, he achieved what she failed to — enacting the great democratic instruction of June 2016 — by means of courage, brio and determination that she so clearly lacked. Oh yes, he also won a landslide majority at the election that he called, compared to her throwing away a majority at the election she did.
If Johnson had a competent strategy team then it could get to work on this idea that these assaults on the PM are all about undermining Brexit and replacing him with a pliant establishment figure who will start tying the UK back into the orbit of Brussels. This idea was, after all, potent in protecting the government during the spring 2020 furore over Dominic Cummings breaching lockdown rules. While liberal-left types hyperventilated with fury and some flaky Tory MPs panicked, the vast majority of 2019 Conservative voters stuck with Team Boris and hence Cummings was saved.
Since then, Cummings has of course become another enemy — outside the tent but directing an acrid stream of invective into it. His brutal social media assessments of Johnson are now so unqualified and vicious that they serve to remind us of his status as a political sweetheart scorned. Yet he is more dangerous than the others because of the insider information he holds and the fact that his analysis of where the PM has gone wrong often resonates across the Leave-voting tribe.
Clever leftists and Remainer-inclined Tory MPs would do well to step back and make space for the likes of Cummings or Steve Baker to lead the charge against Johnson if they value getting rid of him more than simply venting against him.
Ominously for the PM, the Labour leader Keir Starmer is one enemy who appears to have worked this out, saying it is up to Johnson’s own colleagues to decide whether they are willing to risk their own reputations by sustaining him in office. Starmer, who is now making progress under the expert tutelage of Peter Mandelson, the Dark Lord of Hampstead Garden Suburb, is also wise to back Johnson in the looming Commons vote on new Covid measures.
By doing this he will ensure the government prevails over its mutinous backbenchers and deny himself the sugar-rush of an immediate Commons victory over the PM. But he will also ensure the size of the Tory rebellion is maximised precisely because unhappy Tory MPs know the government will not get beaten.
And the spectacle of Johnson implementing Covid passports — a measure popular on the left and unpopular on the right — by relying on the votes of Labour MPs will set off a bomb inside the Tory party. When politics are as polarised as they are right now, revenge is often a dish best served by somebody else altogether.
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