The moment it became clear Johnson’s belief in his invincibility was misplaced - Dani Garavelli
There aren’t many upsides to insomnia, but occasionally it means you’re in a cluster of peopledoom-scrolling Twitter when exciting news breaks.
Friday was one such morning.
Shortly after4am, before the rooster crowed for the third (or even the first) time, the Tory faithful of North Shropshire had disowned their party. In a direct rejection of Boris Johnson, they overturned a majority of just under 23,000, and almost 200 years of tradition, electing Liberal Democrat Helen Morgan as their new MP.
Well, the Twittersphere was bouncing. There was no cheese, and the wine had long since been drunk; but the atmosphere was certainly festive, as celebratory posts and Gifs were shared amongst the half-woke.
It had been so long since anything anti-Brexit-y had happened in the UK political bubble, a giddiness took hold. And here was the best of it: the Tory trouncing had come
about as a result of an own goal, an unforced error, a by-election that need never have happened.
If Johnson has a fatal flaw, it is his conviction that the rules do not apply to him or those around him. For a long time, he behaved like a 15th Century Cardinal, even down to the siring of God knows how many children. And Tory voters appeared to have a limitless tolerance for his self-entitlement.
But - as Donald Trump discovered before him - even the most untouchable of bouffant-haired narcissists overstep the mark eventually.
For Johnson that moment came with North Shropshire MP Owen Paterson. Paterson’s venality was not such a big deal. His breach of the rules on lobbying may have been “egregious”, but had he served his 30 days suspension, the controversy would have subsided and the news cycle moved on.
It was the Prime Minister’s insistence that the rules should be waived that proved the tipping point. He tried to tear up the standards system. There was a backlash, the
suspension was reinstated and Paterson resigned.
By the time the by-election was held last week, Johnson was mired in another scandal: the conveyor belt of allegations about Christmas parties held in Downing Street and elsewhere last year in breach of Covid restrictions. Voters, it turns out, are prepared to put up with all sorts of lies and double standards if they are
targeted at others, but not if they’re the butt of the joke.
And so, with a public backlash against Johnson mounting, and the 1922 Committee nipping at his heels, the people of North Shropshire decided to exact vengeance. They elected Morgan with a stonking 6,000-strong majority.
So was Johnson chastened? Was he hell. When he faced the cameras later, he aped contrition, pretending to take responsibility for the defeat, while blaming the public and the media for their perverse interest in his government’s misdemeanours.
Why couldn’t they just focus on the vaccine roll-out, he whined, instead of looking into sleaze and Christmas parties? Like the unmasked villain at the end of Scooby Doo, he would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for a handful of meddling journalists like The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar and ITV’s Paul Brand. Although, for some reason, he prefers to blame the BBC.
Those journalists are still piling on the pressure. As I write, the cast of Carry on Crimbo has expanded to include Simon Case - the civil servant Johnson tasked with investigating the 18 December party. Case took himself off the case when it emerged he might be central to the case. He is alleged to have been so aware of a Christmas party in his own office, he stopped by to deliver a short speech.
As the Prime Minister’s shine corrodes, those MPs loyal only so long as they believed he was a winner are turning against him. Nor will recess provide Johnson’s hoped-for hiatus: MPs have been told they can email letters of no confidence to Sir Graham Brady over the Christmas break. Fifty-four letters would trigger a vote.
If you wanted to rain on this anti-Johnson parade, you could point out the Prime Minister’s most vocal internal critics are those MPs who oppose his attempts to bring in greater rules around mask wearing and increased restrictions (to the extent that he relied on Labour to get his Plan B through the Commons).
You could argue a right-wing libertarian backlash is less than welcome at a time when London is already drowning in Omicron cases. Or that the parties - while offensive - are a sideshow compared to the crisis taking hold of London Ambulance Service which was 400 staff and 100 ambulances down because of Covid-related staff absences on Friday night.
You might even go so far as to suggest a leadership election right now would distract from dealing with the current spike, or that the two frontrunners: Rishi Sunak, who took a trip to California while the hospitality industry here was begging for support, and Liz Truss - who believes so strongly in personal freedom she called her daughter Liberty - are hardly reassuring successors.
But then you would remember all the damage Johnson has done; all the lies he told; all the lives he trashed to deliver a Brexit he wasn’t even ideologically wedded to. You would reflect on his vainglorious pursuit of power for power’s sake, his indolence, his lack of rigour or direction, his gracelessness, his disregard for the democratic process, his cruelty towards migrants, his cutting of universal credit, his refusal to wear a mask even in hospital; and you would hope.
You would hope that North Shropshire will come to be recognised as a watershed moment: the moment Tory voters’ eyes finally opened; the moment it became clear that Johnson’s belief in his invincibility was misplaced; that he was not, in fact, unassailable; that there were liberties even he could not take.
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