Downing Street Christmas Party: If Boris Johnson is forced out, the Conservatives will only get stronger – Joyce McMillan
It’s difficult not to feel a faint pang of sympathy for Boris Johnson’s new-born daughter, who entered the world on Thursday morning, at the height of the latest crisis engulfing her father’s premiership.
She will want for nothing, of course; but the frenzied atmosphere around Downing Street at the moment hardly radiates the calm rejoicing and goodwill that should welcome a new baby, and the chances of her father finding much time to bond with her seem limited at best.
Or perhaps not; for so profound is the unrest now pervading the Tory benches at Westminster that Johnson may soon find himself spending more time with his family, whether he wills it or not.
He has, of course, survived many crises in the past, notably the great Barnard Castle outcry of May 2020 when Dominic Cummings was found to have broken lockdown rules, and the uproar that, just a month ago, surrounded his attempt to protect the former MP Owen Paterson, a staunch Johnson loyalist, from the consequences of a clear breach of parliamentary lobbying rules.
This time around, though, the level of public anger over alleged Downing Street parties during last year’s lockdown Christmas seems to have put the wind up a widening group of Conservative politicians.
The generally loyal Scottish Tory leader, Douglas Ross, went on the record as believing Johnson should resign, if it is found that he misled parliament on the subject. Ruth Davidson – now Baroness Davidson of Lundin Links – has taken to Twitter to describe Johnson’s position as “indefensible” and “pathetic”.
Lobby correspondents have published strings of anonymous quotes from senior Tories convinced that the Johnson premiership cannot survive much longer; and Johnson’s hopelessly unconvincing performance at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions was greeted with stony and furious silence by many of his own backbenchers.
We may, in other words, be shaping up for one the Tory Party’s periodic transformative convulsions, when it morphs in order to survive, leaving the public convinced that something decisive has happened.
The greatest of those moments in recent history took place, of course, in November 1990, when the party ditched Margaret Thatcher after 11 years in government, and turned to the much more emollient John Major, winning themselves another seven years in office.
The toppling of Theresa May, in the summer of 2019, was another such moment, as Boris Johnson seized power with the promise to “get Brexit done”. And now, with a hard Brexit in progress – although certainly far from complete – it seems he, too, may have come to the end of his usefulness.
Here, though, is the rub; because although the replacement of Boris Johnson with a different Tory leader would be presented to the nation as a seismic political change – and will, if it takes place, probably have a powerful effect on public opinion, both north and south of the Border – in fact such a change would most likely mean very little, in terms of substantive policy.
When angry Conservative MPs started to boo their own ministers in the Commons on Wednesday, it was not Priti Patel’s appalling Nationality and Borders Bill that attracted their ire – that sailed through by teatime, with a majority of 67 – but Sajid Javid’s latest proposals for England’s “Plan B” against Covid, perceived by the doughty freedom-fighters of the Tory back benches as a threat to various business interests.
When the Tories rebel, it seems, it will not be against the shocking restrictions on the right to protest enshrined in Patel’s new Police Bill, nor against the recent quasi-totalitarian threat to give ministers the right to strike down legal rulings, nor – above all – against the colossal damage being inflicted on the British economy by the serial nonsense of Johnson’s “hard Brexit”.
It will be, purely and simply, against those aspects of Johnson’s conduct of government that are superficially offensive enough even to attract the fury of the Daily Mail; and their aim will be to replace him with someone who will alter his policies barely at all, while presenting a more credible and statesmanlike face to the world.
What we are undergoing at the moment, in other words, is a huge crisis in the kind of politics unkindly known as “showbusiness for ugly people”. Excitement reigns at Westminster, and to some extent across the nation, because Boris and Carrie may be about to be “voted off”, like Strictly contestants of whom we’ve seen enough; their tearful farewells made, their faces replaced by those of a new first family.
Yet beyond that crisis, all that awaits the UK is yet more of the same – a terrible stasis of destructive and reactionary rule from Westminster, even more difficult to oppose with a more plausible politician than Johnson at the helm; and a seething yet indecisive discontent in Scotland, only likely to reach a more profound stalemate if the demise of Johnson produces a surge in support for the Tories and the Union.
What is needed at Westminster, of course, is not a new front man or woman for a form of Toryism whose failure is now obvious across every sector of Britain's economy and society, but a profound, compassionate and radical change of direction, aimed towards building a sustainable future, rather than trying to recreate an imperial past.
That a majority for such a change could be built across these islands is clearly possible, given strong and eloquent leadership, collaboration among opposition parties, and a shift in the backward-looking dogmatic unionism that has characterised Westminster attitudes to the constitution in recent years.
Only a fool, though, would assume that this week’s turmoil surrounding Boris Johnson will bring such an outcome closer, when a change of leadership might well only give this long period of Conservative government a new lease of life, and leave the country to endure another half-decade of painful, wasted years.
A message from the Editor:
Thank you for reading this article. We're more reliant on your support than ever as the shift in consumer habits brought about by coronavirus impacts our advertisers.
If you haven't already, please consider supporting our trusted, fact-checked journalism by taking out a digital subscription.
Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.