Just after 6 p.m. yesterday it seemed like the Boris Johnson regime was in total, house of cards style collapse. Sajid Javid resigned as Health Secretary during a televised act of contrition by the PM over his handling – if that’s not too indelicate a word – of the Chris Pincher affair. Five minutes later Rishi Sunak quit as Chancellor. Their aides briefed that the two moves had not been coordinated. Nobody believed this.
Outside the Marquis of Granby public house near Smith Square – the Tory tribe’s favourite Westminster watering hole – groups of right-wing think-tankers and researchers for Conservative MPs – avidly scoured social media for updates. Inside the pub the TV was switched to rolling news and as the throng awaited more big-name departures from the government, it seemed all over.
But the big names never materialised, with all due respect to Andrew Murrison and Bim Afolami. By 10 p.m. a credible new Chancellor had been found, as well as a perfectly serviceable replacement Health Secretary. Someone even pointed out that last time Javid resigned it had caused a similar sensation before the waters rapidly closed over him and the ship of state sailed on.
There is a temptation therefore to declare that the greased piglet runs free again. But this is an illusion or at least only a very short-term observation.
Because the mood among Tory MPs – especially those who stayed loyal to Johnson in last month’s confidence vote – has turned against him decisively. One such backbencher spoke of going into the newsagent and seeing a Boris-related scandal all over the front pages of the morning papers once too often. Pinchergate in all its shambolic and morally reprehensible glory has proved the tipping point.
Johnson’s lieutenants seem to understand this too. One very senior ally of the PM walked across central lobby yesterday afternoon, stopping to chat to a parliamentarian of another party. One might have expected him to be sombre and determined – batting for Boris as if he were facing Holding and Roberts in fading light. Instead, he was giggly and light-hearted, groping his own buttock and squealing in an apparent Carry On-style joke about Chris Pincher – either demob happy or just part of a terminally unserious inner circle around the PM.
None of the potential escape routes for a Prime Minister who no longer has the confidence of most of his MPs – the position Johnson is now in – are going to work.
Could he, for instance, persuade Nadhim Zahawi to rush through an emergency tax-cutting budget in the next couple of weeks and might that be a game-changer? After all he met 80 Tory MPs, predominantly from the right of the party yesterday and reportedly told them: ‘I know you’re all avidly in favour of tax cuts and tonight’s events might make that a bit easier to deliver.’
But it is doubtful Zahawi would be bounced into this. And even if he were, it would imply that economic policy is not being conducted in the national interest but simply as a branch of Operation Save Big Dog.
What if Keir Starmer gets a fixed penalty notice and has to resign? In fact, this would make Johnson’s removal more likely rather than less, allowing the Tories to change horses without looking any more shambolic than an opposition doing just the same.
Might the Queen grant Johnson a dissolution and a snap general election before he can be toppled? Labour’s formal demand for one makes that a little less unlikely – but only a little. Her Majesty would probably wish to consult other senior privy counsellors about the constitutional implications of granting an obviously self-serving mid-term poll to a PM whose party has a solid and stable majority.
The most likely course of events now is that Sir Graham Brady will respond to an overwhelming mood against the PM on the Tory benches by telling him the game is up and that he must quit this summer or new rules will facilitate a second confidence vote, the result of which will be utterly humiliating for him.
Margaret Thatcher was sustained in office for so long and through so many difficult moments largely thanks to her prioritising of ‘our people’, by which she meant lower middle class and aspirational working class strivers. They knew that, whatever her faults, she was out to deliver for them.
This Prime Minister has never found his people, relying instead on his pop idol celebrity to sustain his popularity. Instead of focusing relentlessly on the priorities of the Leave-voting tribe – immigration control being foremost amongst them – since Brexit he has often seemed to seek rehabilitation back into a metropolitan smart set that holds him in eternal contempt.
Time is almost up for the Dennis the Menace of Downing Street and his ever-changing alibis. Dilyn, his Gnasher, must have eaten his homework so often that it is a wonder the poor dog’s stomach is not shaped like a red box file. Seldom has so much political capital been depleted so fast by so much sloppiness. We wait to see what comes next. But next will not now be long delayed.
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