For once, Keir Starmer was right on target. In calling for a vote on whether Parliament was misled over partygate, he exposed an embarrassing fact: the Tories may not be ready to depose Boris Johnson but they won’t protect him, either. No 10 found this out at the last minute, when dozens of MPs point-blank refused to vote against Starmer’s plan. In a panic, the whips let his motion go unopposed. In so doing, they accept that the Prime Minister exists in a strange limbo – leading a party that will neither back him nor sack him.
His popularity has evaporated, with polls showing him rivalling Gordon Brown in favourability rankings. He has been found guilty by the Metropolitan Police of breaking his own needless lockdown laws. He has broken a manifesto pledge not to raise taxes: as of this month, the Government is helping itself to an extra 2.5 per cent of everyone’s salaries. Polls show Labour is now seen as the more credible low-tax party. So why vote Tory? We’ll find out next month, with the party bracing itself to lose 800 councillors in local elections.
Things can’t get much worse. But if his party won’t dethrone him even now – if the worst they will do is stand back while Labour suggests a wrist-slapping inquiry – then will they ever move against him? “The one ineluctable fact of all of this is that he will never, ever resign,” says one Cabinet member. So he’s jetted off to New Delhi, acting as if there is no great danger and this will all blow over. He might well be right.
By the end of yesterday’s drama, just one more MP – Steve Baker – had come forward to say the Prime Minister should resign. So of his 358 Tory MPs, nine are calling on him to quit. But then again, just 77 have spoken up for him in public – leaving three-quarters of the party reserving their judgment. From my own soundings, I’d say that most are appalled at partygate and exhausted by his antics, but struggle to see who would do better. Or whether a long contest (inevitable under Tory rules) is viable at a time of European war.
Those who back the Prime Minister point to his durability. Take the opinion polls: the Tories are still just seven percentage points behind Labour. David Cameron would have killed for such a close gap. John Major was 40 points behind at one stage. When everything is going wrong for him – a cost-of-living crisis and lockdown hypocrisy exposed – Johnson is still very much in the game, and exhibiting a kind of survival skill that is valuable in a political leader.
The Ukraine crisis has become his lifeline, allowing him to claim (with some justification) that he gets the big decisions right. He sent arms to Kyiv before anyone else in Europe, and did so against Whitehall resistance. Even the Rwanda migration deal has impressed Tories: it’s a huge controversy which, they believe, has aligned the party with majority opinion. Such wedge issues can win elections, and Johnson has just reminded his party of his Trump-like knack of finding them.
A few weeks after Anthony Scaramucci quit as Trump’s spokesman, he told me his theory about how such a flawed character was able to win over half of America. “The universe bends towards him,” he said. Every conversation seems to involve him. His enemies play into his hands by using him as a reference point in every debate. The analogies don’t run too far: Trump is barely literate while Johnson can recite The Odyssey in Ancient Greek as a party trick. But who else, from any party, has the ability to hog the limelight?
This question applies internationally. Emmanuel Macron has this X-factor, but he can only serve two terms. Who will take on Marine Le Pen next time, given that all of the other parties seem to have collapsed? Or look at the United States, an ingenious country of 330 million people that leads the world economically, academically and culturally. But the bookies’ favourite to win the 2024 presidential election is one Donald J Trump. Polls show that, if a US election were held tomorrow, he’d probably win.
Charisma – positive or negative – goes horribly far in politics. Perhaps this explains the excitement in Labour circles about the idea of Ed Balls returning in the coming Wakefield by-election: a Strictly Come Dancing star who might register with the general public in the way that Starmer’s remarks never seem to. Someone who might generate a buzz, capture attention in the way that Johnson has never really stopped doing.
But if Balls is the answer, then Labour is in more trouble than the polls suggest. Has it really developed no one, in these long wilderness years, to eclipse a rumbled, promise-breaking Tory leader?
Then again, who have the Tories developed? Not so long ago, Rishi Sunak looked ready to step into No 10 and seemed to have been tested in the toughest circumstances imaginable. But then comes a political banana skin – his wife’s non-dom status – upon which he slipped. This is the main reason why far fewer MPs are calling for Johnson to resign now: back in January they were quite happy with the idea of a Sunak premiership. Now, they don’t think he stands a chance.
The party could always gamble: perhaps with Nadhim Zahawi, the Education Secretary and a fast-rising star. Or maybe Tom Tugendhat, who speaks well but has never ran a department. Liz Truss remains the favourite among members, but has many enemies among her peers in the 2010 intake (who make up about a quarter of Tory MPs). If a contest were held now, its opening round would be dominated by an effort to “stop Truss”.
The Prime Minister now faces three inquiries: the Metropolitan Police (who may well announce their bad news on the day of the local election results), Sue Gray’s own inquiry and that of the Commons. He may hope that everyone tires of partygate or that success – in Ukraine or elsewhere – may speak louder. Or simply that no other candidate gathers ground. He never really had a big fan base in Parliament: MPs regarded him as a chancer, but a lucky chancer – and their least worst option. That might change, but hasn’t yet.
Through the silence over partygate, we could well be hearing the sound of a party deciding to stick with the devil it knows.