What happens now?
With Johnson wounded but not dead the Tories are are in the worst possible place
Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images
Last week Boris Johnson was grimly hanging over the precipice. This week he’s still there, stubbornly refusing to accept his fate. The Rasputin of the Tory party. In last week’s post I said I thought there would be a confidence vote and around 160 MPs ready to rebel. This turned out to be about right, it was 148 in the end. But I went on to say:
“There is an expectation in the party, including amongst Johnson’s supporters, that there will be a heavy vote against him, even if it doesn’t quite hit the 180 threshold. But most Tory MPs, including those more inclined to be loyal to the PM, know that this is the worst possible result for the party. It is assumed that Johnson, being preternaturally devoid of shame or dignity, will try to stay on if he wins by any margin, unlike previous leaders who’ve taken the hint. A deeply split party, with a further weakened Johnson at the helm, does not feel like an appetising prospect. Labour and the Liberal Democrats would be overjoyed with this outcome. All of which makes me think that Johnson would probably lose a vote.”
My mistake here – a common one for forecasters – was to elide how I would react, given a certain set of information, with how the relevant subject, in this case Tory MPs, would. Instead, they decided to manoeuvre themselves into exactly this worst case scenario. And they did know what was coming. By the time voting started it was clear the rebels would be well into three figures and probably around the 150 mark. Extraordinarily, a lot of MPs seem to have decided late in the day to back Johnson. Around 35 made public declarations of support after voting had started, including around 20 of the so-called “payroll” vote made up of Minsters, whips and ministerial aides. Had they gone the other way he’d have lost.
In the end it was this payroll vote that won it. While the vote was anonymous we can see from public declarations, which seem to have been remarkably honest, that at least 80% of this group ended up voting for him, with around 70% of backbenchers voting against. Ultimately the risk of losing a Government position seemed to weigh more heavily than the risk of being stuck in a paralysed party with a deeply unpopular PM. The lack of a strong alternative leader was always Johnson’s strongest card, and may have prevented some from taking the leap. No doubt there were also promises of better jobs and other perks. Whatever the reasons the Tories are in the worst place now, a PM seriously wounded and unlikely to fight the next election, but also unwilling to go and with no immediate mechanism to remove him.
What happens next?
Of the various scenarios for how things could play out in the coming weeks and months, the simplest and least painful for everyone would be for Johnson to resign or the cabinet to force him out. But if doing that was in either his or their character he’d already be gone. The entire cabinet declared loyalty yesterday (if they hadn’t he wouldn’t have survived the vote) and there’s no reason to suspect that will change. None of them are in a strong position to challenge for the leadership. There may be a few more junior Ministerial resignations but, astonishingly it’s still the case that not a single House of Commons Minister has resigned since the Partygate story broke.
There also seems little chance that those who voted against him will accept the result. Several rebels have already made it clear they do not and they will keep agitating against him. The process of having a vote has pushed more of them into the open too. Jeremy Hunt has now explicitly called for the PM to go as have other senior backbenchers like Jesse Norman and John Penrose (who resigned as Johnson’s anti-corruption tsar – not a title one would want on one’s CV).
But it’s not a coherent group with an explicit set of demands, nor do they have a leader or any clear short term strategy for removing Johnson now the vote is passed. They come from all corners of the party, which is a strength in some ways, but makes collective action very hard. They can make the Government’s life difficult – essentially the party is now unwhippable as so many have already rebelled – but that just makes it harder to pass legislation, and the PM doesn’t care much about legislation.
In theory the rebels could vote with the opposition parties on a motion of no confidence in the Government. Technically this need not lead to a general election. If representations were made to the Queen that an alternative Conservative Prime Minister would command the support of the House then she could appoint them without an election (this is essentially what happened in 1940 when Churchill replaced Chamberlain, albeit the Government didn’t actually lose the confidence vote). This isn’t going to happen though. It’s too risky and too messy and the rebels wouldn’t want to give Labour the satisfaction.
So realistically their only viable mechanism is another vote of no confidence in Johnson. As I said in the previous post there is nothing to stop the 1922 committee changing their rules so that another vote can take place within the next year. Theresa May resigned when they told her they were about to do this. But the current executive is evenly split between those who backed Johnson and those who didn’t. Backbenchers will elect a new executive in the autumn and the rebels will be looking for a clear majority for a rule change. In any case another vote in the next few weeks would look premature. It took eight months before they effectively told May it was time to go.
This means the expected by-election losses on the 23rd June will come too soon to trigger a further vote. Unless they lead to cabinet resignations it will just be another set of bad headlines for Johnson and on we go. A more plausible trigger for a second vote would be if the Privileges Committee concluded that Johnson knowingly misled Parliament over Partygate. That investigation is due to be completed in the autumn, no earlier than October, and we still don’t know which Labour MP will be leading it, as the Chair of the committee, Chris Bryant, has recused himself.
If the Committee find he did knowingly misled Parliament there would then be a vote of all MPs on the conclusions, which Johnson would likely lose. At that point any other PM in history would resign, but assuming Boris still refuses to do, that would likely tip the 1922 Executive into authorising a second vote. (There is a misconception going round that if the PM got a suspension of ten days or more that he could be subject to a recall petition but because it’s the privileges committee not the standards committee, that’s probably not right.)
This scenario relies on the Committee deciding against Johnson. If they don’t then it’s not clear what the next trigger could be – but there will be one, whether it’s further by-elections, another scandal, or just an accumulation of frustration over Government drift. Ultimately they could hold another vote in a year, with a new set of letters, if he’s still there and get someone new in just in time to give them a decent run in to a general election.
What can Johnson do?
There may not be many short term options for the rebels, but the PM is pretty stuck too. It’s not clear what he can do to salvage his position and lead the party into the next election. Some allies have suggested a reshuffle but it’s entirely unclear what that would achieve. The last thing he wants is to put more potential dissidents – such as likely leadership candidate Penny Mordaunt – on the backbenches. And he can’t make the cabinet any more loyal than it already is. He could make it marginally more capable but only at the expense of upsetting currently supportive Ministers like Priti Patel.
Nor is there an obvious policy agenda that he could embrace to unite the party. His opponents may agree the current paralysis is bad, but not on any alternative path. There’s no way to cut taxes, support the NHS and schools, level up, and reduce the deficit all at the same time. In practice, given the state of the economy, it’s hard to do any of them. Moreover, even if there was some amazing policy package that would unite the party, Johnson has neither the inclination nor the team to find out what it might be. The proposed “fightback” announcements this week look painfully thin. Childcare deregulation might have some benefits if done right but it’s not going to make a dent in the cost of living problem.
There’s not even much in the way of unpopular legislation that they can drop. There were a lot of bills in the Queen’s Speech but most of them were technocratic. It’s hard to see beyond more of the same cycle of stories designed to appeal to Tory voters but with precious little substance – so expect more about how liberal lefties are blocking the Rwanda deportations; endless threats around the Northern Ireland Protocol; occasional half-hearted culture war forays and so on. There’s nothing else in the cupboard.
Unless the cabinet act, or Johnson simply gets fed up with everything and decides to go and make some money, we are likely stuck in a holding pattern for months if not longer. The rebels will continue to complain about the PM, giving nice juicy quotes for the Sunday papers, but unable to do anything practical before the autumn. Johnson will continue with the dismal strategy he’s been following all year, keeping right-wing papers on side with clickbait, and refusing to take any responsibility for anything. The bad news will continue to accumulate. In the medium to long term it’s dire for the Tory party. In the short term it’s a bleak prospect for the country.
Thanks very much to Paul Goodman, Editor of Conservative Home, for tracking down the full list of 1922 Committee members. There is no up-to-date list anywhere on line that I could find. So here it is:
Sir Graham Brady (Chair)
William Wragg (Joint Vice-Chair)
Nusrat Ghani (Joint Vice-Chair)
Bob Blackman (Joint Executive Secretary)
Gary Sambrook (Joint Executive Secretary)
Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Treasurer)
Sir Bernard Jenkin
Of this lot only six publicly supported Johnson in the vote (both McCartneys; Murray; Vickers, Randall and Morris). Kearns and Wragg are openly very critical of the PM. Of the rest I suspect nearly all of them voted no confidence. That means there is a majority of the 1922 likely to support a change in rules. There is a 1922 election coming up - not exactly clear when - but as a substantial majority of backbenchers voted against Johnson you wouldn’t have thought loyalists would be able to get on the committee.
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