Boris Johnson insists that his victory in last night’s confidence vote means he will be able to ‘draw a line under issues our opponents want to talk about’. But what the result actually shows, as Boris undoubtedly knows, is that even some of those who backed him in the vote now want him gone.
Why? Shortly after the debacle, Matthew Parris in the Times hit the nail on the head. One minister had, he wrote, let the cat out of the bag when he (or she) confided to him: ‘He’s appalling: he’s got to go’ before trooping in to vote against the no-confidence motion with gritted teeth. It is a racing certainty that there are many others who thought, and acted, in just the same way: without doubt many more than the 32 who would have had to switch sides to change the result.
The problem, of course, is that for anyone on the government payroll (a group comprising something over 160 MPs), this exercise in party democracy was not exactly either free or fair. Whatever their real opinions, loyalty made it difficult for them to attack the boss who had hired them. Because of the secrecy of the ballot we obviously don’t know exactly which MPs voted which way. But informed guesses are that among backbenchers there was a majority of anything up to 75 per cent who wanted him out. In other words, Boris is now a leader who has lost the trust of most of his foot-soldiers and is being sustained in office by little more than the loyalty of those beholden to him for a job.
This is bad for both Boris and the party. The naysayers who put their heads over the parapet included not only patrician southerners, which one might have expected, but prominent Red Wallers such as Dehenna Davison from Bishop Auckland and Aaron Bell from Newcastle-under-Lyme. The future of the Tory party depends on MPs such as them. No wonder Monday’s vote is being gleefully hailed as the best possible news for Labour.
What will happen to Boris in the next few weeks, and how far Labour can exploit it, is anyone’s guess. But the Tories have a more immediate difficulty. It is vital to find a way to ensure that Monday’s debacle never happens again. On this, one radical idea in particular may be worth contemplating. Why not change the rules for no-confidence ballots aimed at triggering a leadership election, and say that in future only backbenchers can vote in them, to the exclusion of government place-holders?
This solution, which would undoubtedly have produced a different result this week, may seem bizarre. But if you look at it more closely, there are a surprising number of arguments in favour of it.
To begin with, members of the government are in an invidious position when it comes to leadership challenges. Appointed to paid office by the very leader whose position is at stake, their loyalties will be impossibly split in a vote concerned with the fortunes of the party as a whole. Is it unfair to disenfranchise them? Hardly. After all, they already have vastly more power proportionately over the leader than ordinary backbenchers, since few if any leaders could weather a full ministerial revolt: there is no need to give them more.
Secondly, backbenchers know their electors. Unlike ministers, who often have fairly safe seats and are inevitably shielded from a good deal of constituency drudgery by pressure of work, the humble backbench MP is all too aware of what their constituents think from surgery to surgery, from outraged email to outraged email. They are also painfully conscious that their job depends on how far they can convince those constituents, especially since they are more likely to have been recently elected and therefore still to have a name to make for themselves and their party. A party leadership that fails to address the concerns of its rank and file is likely to find itself not only out of touch, but also, in due course, out of office. Anything that makes that leadership sit up and take notice of such people can only be a good thing.
Thirdly, the habit of all party leaders – Labour as well as Tory – of seeing backbenchers as a kind of cannon-fodder, relatively unimportant and if necessary expendable, does not help party morale; nor does it encourage able people to put themselves forward as candidates or remain as MPs if elected. Knowledge by Conservative ministers and party leaders that they potentially hold their positions at the pleasure of the backbenchers who do most of the political heavy lifting at constituency level is a useful counter to such insouciance. A political culture in which ministers have to keep a watch on what concerns ordinary MPs, rather than being able to keep discreet tabs on them by vague promises of office provided they do not rock the boat, can only be a good thing.
Perhaps most important, however, is the perception of the public. People are already chary of voting Tory: whatever they think of individual candidates, many now see Boris, fairly or unfairly, as shallow and shifty. Monday’s vote, however, has now seriously tarred the party itself. It will inevitably be seen, especially in Wakefield and Honiton, as one where elite and out-of-touch MPs rally round a flawed Prime Minister out of little more than feelings of atavistic loyalty.
This is exactly the image the Conservatives must suppress if they want to revitalise the radical, activist conservatism with which Boris wowed the electorate in 2019. A well-publicised commitment to break the hold of the elite and empower ordinary constituency MPs – the politicians that the vast majority of electors in Conservative seats come across from day to day – to keep the leadership in order, and to call it to account if it misbehaves, would do an enormous amount to restore voters’ confidence. Even before Boris eventually limps wounded off the stage, this needs to be be at the top of the Tory agenda.
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