As Tory MPs vote this evening, Jesse Norman’s letter stands as the most recent case for the deposing of the Prime Minister. But the letter itself may well end up helping Boris Johnson, given its oddly weak arguments from one of the Conservative party’s big thinkers. I’m one of those who has been disappointed with the Boris project: his lockdowns (with all of the immense social damage), a tax burden at a 70-year high, a spending-splurge instinct, lack of any idea what to do with Brexit and allowing another welfare crisis to incubate due to lack of attention. But Norman mentions none of these things. And it raises questions as to what the alternative plan is.
In his letter, Norman talks about the No. 10 lockdown parties – but does not say whether the laws made went too far. This focuses on the relatively trivial at the expense of the substantial. And to a lot of Tories, these birthday cake incidents were put into perspective by the slaughter of Ukrainians by Russian forces and Boris Johnson’s swift response – behind which the rest of Europe fell in line. That is a factor when assessing his leadership.
Another factor is the vaccine taskforce which, oddly, Norman doesn’t mention. His wife, Kate Bingham, led that taskforce – an unprecedented enterprise set free from the Whitehall bureaucracy, that only Johnson would have set up. Norman has previously spoken a lot about this saying he spent 2020 ‘supporting my extraordinary wife… in her work on the Vaccine Task Force. We worked round the clock, with me on furlough, her on vaccines. Someone described us as ‘Mr Tax and Mrs Vax’.’ Would she have had that job if anyone else had been in No. 10?
Norman’s main target is No. 10’s plan to reform the Northern Ireland Protocol – which he describes as ‘almost certainly illegal’. A controversial phrase: after the purge of the Tory Remainers (Norman has never declared his position on Brexit) the Tory party is now dominated by MPs who think that the UK parliament now decides what’s legal – and that this, indeed, was the whole point of Brexit. So under our constitution, how can a law passed by Parliament and signed by the Queen be illegal?
All this highlights the potential for post-Boris Tory splits because half – perhaps even most – of Tory MPs agree with Lord Frost that reforming the Protocol would safeguard rather than (as Norman says) threaten the union by toning down what they regard as vexatious checks imposed on goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK. Any Tory leader stood on a platform of protecting the Protocol would be asked difficult questions about this. Some 20 per cent of all checks in the EU’s borders are taking place in Northern Ireland – which has less than 1 per cent of its population. Is this acceptable – and if not, why accept it? Not a single unionist elected to the Assembly backs the Protocol. So is it democratically tenable and, if not, how should a democracy respond?
Norman once argued that Theresa May’s proposed Brexit compromise was ‘the only deal on the table or remotely likely to be on the table.’ Johnson proved him wrong on that. Yes, Johnson does regard himself as being unconfined by convention: what Tories need to ask is whether this instinct is still useful.
Norman’s final point is the most important. He says that Johnson staying in No. 10 ‘makes a decisive change of government at the election much more likely’. Tories who think this should vote to depose Johnson this evening. But they won’t, because the logic is not as clear.
In politics, it’s always a choice: you have to name the person who would plausibly do it better. If Johnson staying makes a Tory defeat more likely then who would be the more effective vote-winner? The bookmakers’ favourite right now is Jeremy Hunt – is he the man to safeguard the red wall? Number two is Liz Truss: would she unite the party? Number three is Tom Tugendhat: does he have the experience needed to set up the smooth-running government that Norman calls for? Number four is Penny Mordaunt. Perhaps they’d all do it better, but Norman does not make this case – and no one else has either.
This will be the question the Tory MPs will have to ask tonight: if they depose him, who are the two or three most likely successors? And how confident are they that any of these three will represent an improvement so significant as to compensate for the spectacle of the Tories deposing a PM who won a landslide and indulging themselves in a leadership battle during a European war?
Again, perhaps there is such a leader. But no one – anywhere – has made the case for it. As such, the attempt to depose him is premature. It may fatally wound him but may also do precisely what Norman accuses Johnson of: stumbling on without any real plan as to what happens next.
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