Boris Johnson’s loss of authority

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

18 June 2022

9:00 AM

There is an uneasy truce in the Tory party. The 148 MPs who voted no confidence in Boris Johnson last week haven’t suddenly changed their minds, but some of them are prepared to give him a year’s grace to try to turn his premiership around. Others are looking for an earlier opportunity to strike, yet they know it is counterproductive to admit that now. They realise that if they are going to persuade the 1922 executive to change the rules to allow another confidence vote within 12 months they will need to argue that the circumstances have substantially changed. While they wait for the moment to attack, it would not be helpful to their cause if they hinted that they are already working out how to change the rules.

There is relief among Johnson’s supporters that he has lived to fight another day. One secretary of state who is as inclined to optimism as his boss thinks that ‘the greased piglet might slip through’, pointing out that Labour had a bigger lead in polls in 2013 than it does today and that the speed of change in British politics means Johnson could recover. He highlights that just a week after the leadership vote, everyone is already talking about other things, such as the Rwanda plan and the Northern Ireland protocol.

The decision by the European Court of Human Rights to block the flight to Kigali means that British politics has been thrown into a debate over whether the UK should leave the ECHR’s jurisdiction. Expect the government to make much of how its forthcoming British bill of rights would make it harder for those who arrive in small boats to avoid being sent to Rwanda.

The dispute over the protocol, however, will show the consequences of the loss of authority that the Prime Minister has suffered. Johnson has never been comfortable with the arrangement. He agreed to it to get a Brexit deal over the line but has treated it as unfinished business ever since. This strategy has run into predictable problems. The EU is reluctant to reopen an agreement it had only just negotiated. And there is now an additional consideration for the EU side: why negotiate with Johnson after his no-confidence vote? As one EU source said to me: ‘What’s the point of renegotiating with someone who might not be there much longer?’

The wish might be father to the thought here: few tears would be shed in Brussels, Paris or Berlin if Johnson left the stage. But it is a problem in international diplomacy if the other side is inclined to wait you out.

Senior figures in the British government are already fretting that the ‘EU want to play this long.’ They argue that the problems are asymmetric at the moment: the protocol causes division in the UK and poses problems to governance in Northern Ireland, while the issues for the EU are much less significant.

The government’s willingness to threaten unilateral action carries two big risks. The first is that it could harm Britain’s inter-national reputation. It is interesting that it has been reported that Anne-Marie Trevelyan, the International Trade Secretary, has expressed concern in cabinet committee about the proposed legislation. Trevelyan was a Brexiteer who voted against Theresa May’s deal, so cannot be dismissed as a faint heart.

The second risk is that the EU will retaliate, and the UK will end up in a trade war which pushes up inflation further and exacerbates the cost of living crisis.

In Whitehall, there is confidence that this row will not lead to the cancellation or suspension of the trade deal agreed at the end of 2020, because it would be hard to get unanimity within the EU for such a step. But even if this is right, there could still be big economic consequences. Firms, particularly international ones, will be tempted to defer investment decisions until they know how the dispute plays out.

There will be no quick resolution. The legal actions that the EU announced on Wednesday morning will take almost three years to finish. Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will take time to go through parliament. Even if it clears the Commons quickly, it will face a difficult time in the Lords.

The protocol row reflects badly on the UK and the EU. The UK’s decision to use the doctrine of necessity to justify its approach is challenged by the fact that it signed up in the first place and that the government hasn’t used the protocol’s own safety mechanism, Article 16, before introducing this legislation. But the EU has been excessively rigid and has failed to appreciate that the story of the Northern Ireland peace process has been one of agreements forming the basis for the next negotiation. It is telling that the EU has not offered to make the grace periods – which have posed no real threat to the integrity of the single market – permanent.

Next week’s by-elections in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton will probably lead to more leadership speculation. However much Tory MPs say that they have priced in defeats, if both seats fall there will be nervousness among red-wall MPs and those in traditionally safe seats. But the idea of trying to change the no-confidence rules so quickly after the last vote is absurd, so Tory losses in those seats would not pose an immediate threat to Johnson.

The biggest challenge to the government remains the cost of living crisis. The problem for the Prime Minister is that much of this is out of his control: inflation is being driven by global increases in energy costs and, increasingly, food prices. It could be argued that Joe Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia next month is as important to the UK government as any of its own interventions. If the US President can persuade the Saudis to pump substantially more oil, it would offer some economic relief and ease the inflationary pressures that are squeezing British households.

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