Winston Churchill offered this advice about how the Conservative party should treat its leader. “The loyalties which centre upon number one are enormous. If he trips, he must be sustained. If he makes mistakes, they must be covered. If he sleeps, he must not be wantonly disturbed. If he is no good, he must be pole-axed.”
Which brings us to Boris Johnson. Tory MPs are tremendously angry with him. They are not quite so furious that they will pole-axe their number one this week, but they are sufficiently incensed to decline to sustain him and refuse to cover for him. Large numbers of them “withdrew their love” in a dramatically public fashion by disdaining to turn up to support him at the most recent prime minister’s questions. They missed an especially unedifying session during which the Speaker had to issue four reprimands to the Tory leader for disorderly behaviour. Where normally the chamber is rammed for PMQs, the vacant green leather behind Mr Johnson bore silent witness to how severely he has aggravated his parliamentary party. Attendees at a later, private meeting of the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers described the atmosphere as sullen. It was not much improved by the prime minister’s belated confession that he had “crashed the car into a ditch”.
The consensus among Conservative MPs is that their leader’s stock with his parliamentary party is plumbing depths not previously seen, not even during the bleakest stretches of the pandemic. The catalyst is the grotesque mishandling of the Owen Paterson affair and the fierce blowback from it, but there are many other underlying sources of discontent. The result is that the prime minister has managed to alienate every Tory faction of any significance.
The most obviously ominous development for him is the fury among the “red wallers”, the large number of Tory MPs who entered the Commons just under two years ago and sit for formerly Labour constituencies mainly concentrated in the Midlands and the north. Previously counted as uber-loyalists, on the grounds that he won them their seats, they are angry that they have been plunged into a sleaze crisis made in Number 10, angry that the prime minister ducked below the parapet while they were exposed to the outrage of voters and further aggrieved that their party suffered so much reputational damage before its leader finally acknowledged that he had blundered. The betrayal of key promises to provide high-speed rail to the north of England has worsened the mood among those representing areas that have lost out. To add to the lengthening list of grievances, the government now wants to fiddle with the cap on social care costs in a way that will leave less affluent pensioners, many of whom live in red wall constituencies, paying tens of thousands of pounds more. “Boris has still got a bit of capital in the bank, but a lot of it has gone,” says a Conservative MP representing a Yorkshire seat.
The “red wallers” are sometimes depicted as being in generational conflict with the “red corduroys”, a reference to the weekend trouser wear sometimes favoured by older Conservative MPs sitting for wealthier, more traditionally Tory areas. Yet the corduroy brigade is also extremely disgruntled. Many in this group engage in the financially rewarding extracurricular activities that are threatened by a tightening of the rules on MPs’ outside jobs. Either ex-ministers or never-will-be ministers, they are already very unbiddable by government business managers. “The whips know not to bother me,” says one. This group will be even more ungovernable and even less forgiving if the prime minister’s shabby bungling costs them money.
These two tribes have featured most prominently in the recriminations that have racked the Tory party over the past three weeks, but they are not the only factions that are discontented with Mr Johnson. There is rumbling from the self-styled “Spartans”, the Brexit fundamentalists who played such an instrumental role in collapsing the premiership of Theresa May and paving the path to Number 10 for Mr Johnson. He’s given them the rock-hard Brexit that they wanted, but he is not delivering the domestic programme that they imagined would follow. For an important proportion of them, the point of getting out of the EU was to allow Britain to become a low-tax, light-regulation, small-state country. They are aghast to see a Conservative government raising taxes to their highest share of the economy since the early 1950s.
This dissatisfied group overlaps with the Thatcherites who have long been suspicious that the Tory leader is not a genuine disciple of the Iron Lady, but a Plasticine Boy. “Boris doesn’t have a conviction in his body,” complains one veteran Thatcherite. “There’s a lot of us worrying: is this a Conservative government?” They tend not to blame the recent tax-hiking budget on Rishi Sunak, who most believe to be one of them at heart, but the spendthrift, haphazard headline-chasing of his next door neighbour.
Just because the right of the Tory party is unhappy doesn’t mean its remaining centrists are satisfied. Liberal, internationalist Tories, the type who tried to stop the government’s savage cuts to the aid budget, don’t feel this is their kind of government either. They are angsty that moderate voters are repelled by sleaze, mendacity, incompetence and the crude bombast of the prime minister. “Many of us assumed that Boris was the One Nation Tory who ran London,” says a centrist Conservative MP who backed him for the leadership in 2019. “Unfortunately, we’ve learnt that this was just a persona to win London. We’ve learnt that this was not the genuine Boris.” Then there is the chunky segment of Tory MPs who never trusted him, always thought he would be a bad prime minister and tried to stop him becoming leader. Residual Cameroons and Mayites can be found in this group, nursing their resentment about the large role he played in the destruction of his two predecessors.
Now I come to the Johnsonites, the loyal band of Tory MPs whom he can expect to sustain him when he trips, cover for him when he makes mistakes and defend him against all enemies. Except I can’t, because there really isn’t such a thing as a Johnsonite. He is a highly unusual prime minister in not having a strong body of committed supporters who will back him through thick and thin. It is a struggle to think of more than a handful of Tory MPs who might fight for him to the bitter end. He doesn’t have colleagues who are dedicated to his philosophy, because he is an opportunist of no fixed ideological abode. He doesn’t have MPs who are devoted to him because they admire the calibre and consistency of his character because you can’t esteem what doesn’t exist. He hasn’t got loyalists, only lackeys. He inspires no true believers, he simply attracts hangers-on. They will let go of his coat-tails the moment they conclude that his premiership is on an irreversibly downward trajectory.
He became leader not because Tory MPs thought he would make a decent prime minister, but because they reckoned him their best bet for winning the last election. His prospects of remaining number one are crucially dependent on Tory MPs continuing to regard him as a winner. The biggest threat to Mr Johnson is not the recent droop in the Conservative party’s poll rating, but the larger drop in his personal ratings. Are voters who once shrugged at his character failings because they liked his shtick tiring of the act? Has the joke stopped being funny? That’s what Sir Keir Starmer is hoping and some Tory MPs report anecdotal evidence that this is beginning to happen among their constituents. “I notice they don’t call him Boris anymore,” says one. “They call him Johnson.”
Our most recent Opinium poll recorded approval for his performance as prime minister at a record low. A lot of things could be at work here. Not just sleaze, but also huge waiting lists for NHS treatment, looming tax rises and the waning of vaccine euphoria. What most matters to Tory MPs of all factions is whether the leader is an asset who boosts the chances of their party retaining power or a drag who endangers it. One shrewd former cabinet minister notes: “If you look back in history, Tory leaders get done in when their ratings track below the party.” Tories have a record of ruthlessness when they decide a leader has reached his or her expiry date. Even winning three elections in a row couldn’t save Mrs Thatcher when MPs concluded that she had become a liability.
Boris Johnson is not yet in the pole-axe zone, but he is stumbling into its vicinity.