Tory MPs must confront Johnson now to limit the electoral damage
The end of Boris Johnson’s premiership has been long predicted but he hangs on because the Tories have lost the unsentimental and efficient means of dispatching leaders.
The days when the ‘men in grey suits’ would hand the leader the equivalent of a glass of brandy and a gun are long gone. A more democratic, though deeply flawed, system of internal democracy handed power to what the late Tory MP Julian Critchley referred to as the ‘garagiste arrivistes’.
Not only do Tory party members have a vote in leadership elections, they also choose parliamentary candidates. Today’s Tory party in parliament is more like the membership than in the past.
When Ted Heath replaced Alec Douglas Home (the 14th Earl of Home) as Tory leader in 1965 it was widely assumed that we would never see another old Etonian in Downing Street again.
But the barely concealed contempt for ordinary Tory members amongst the party’s elite was not reciprocated by the members. The possibility of having an old Etonian able to win elections and, crucially, could deliver a better yesterday was what the party members wanted.
The Conservative party is now the party of Nadine Dorries. And those remaining traditionalist Tory MPs now fear the members more than the electorate.
The combination of Johnson’s utterly shameless personality and the nature of the modern Conservative Party mean that his has been a long goodbye. Leaders are inclined to hold on longer than they should but there comes a point when the drip, drip, drip of evidence proves more damaging that an immediate mea culpa.
What makes Johnson highly unusual, probably unique, is that evidence of dripping dishonesty emerges with regularity across a range of unconnected matters. All that links them is the singular personality of the Prime Minister.
Politics is boisterous and heated, abusive language is abused. Are there any senior politicians who have not been called a ‘liar’ by an opponent? That has contributed to undermining the impact of such a charge. We could do with less name calling not least as it loses the impact so that it has effect when we have someone who patently deserves to be called out.
But while the combination of an empowered Tory membership and our angry shrill politics has protected Boris Johnson, he has lost the country as a whole.
He can only stay in office at a potentially enormous cost to his party. The question now is less about Johnson than about his party. It took far too long for two senior Cabinet Ministers to resign and the failure of others to follow is damning of the party.
The longer other senior Tories fail to confront the leader, the more electoral damage will be done.
Each and every Tory candidate will have to explain their position on Johnson come the next election. What did you do in the Tory wars? This is likely to be a key issue at the next election.