There are many silly old sayings in Westminster that get proved wrong time and time again yet lack the good grace to go away and die. One of the stupidest is that a prime minister is merely “first among equals” in any Cabinet. This idea of governments being jointly steered by a distinguished collective leadership of “big beasts”, each of whom commands a substantial public following and any of whom could seamlessly take the helm, has not been true for at least 40 years.
Certainly ever since the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in 10 Downing Street, prime ministers have sought to – and needed to – operate as quasi-presidential figures if they are serious about getting re-elected.
Boris Johnson, for all his shortcomings, fits this modern template very well. He is enormously famous, highly individualistic and a natural showman. It was his singular ability to connect with working class habitual Labour voters that enabled the Conservatives to win handsomely in December 2019.
While his poll ratings are in the doldrums right now and are unlikely ever again to reach that zenith of a couple of years ago, his campaigning verve in front of mass audiences remains a dependable asset. All of which makes the increasing prospect of his defenestration this summer at the hands of his parliamentary party a notable curiosity.
Just look at the line-up of contenders to replace him according to the bookies’ odds: Liz Truss 6/1, Tom Tugendhat 8/1, Jeremy Hunt 8/1, Ben Wallace 10/1, Penny Mordaunt 21/2, Rishi Sunak 12/1, Sajid Javid 17/1.
I might as well be the one to break it to Tory MPs that these potential candidates can be summed up as follows: an inexperienced lightweight, a longtime backbencher few voters will have heard of, a middleweight re-tread, a solid secretary of state working at his natural level, a trans rights obsessive and two bankers.
Since the evisceration of Sunak, only Mordaunt of those named above has even the remotest potential to capture the public imagination in a helpful way. And these seven are supposedly the big hitters. Be assured dozens more will be looking in the mirror this morning and convincing themselves that greatness will soon be thrust upon them.
But consider the fate of parties who have jettisoned proven charismatic communicators. John Major succeeded Thatcher and turned her 101-seat majority of 1987 into one of barely 20 in 1992, before leading his party to an epoch-making defeat in 1997. Gordon Brown – who had regarded himself as part of a ruling duumvirate with Blair – also proved hopelessly unattractive to voters once tested in the top job, losing nearly a hundred seats for Labour in its calamitous defeat in 2010.
Like Brown, that supposed “safe pair of hands” Theresa May was also unable to sustain an initial honeymoon with voters and chucked away the Tory majority won by David Cameron at a disastrous 2017 election that exposed her campaigning ineptitude.
Worse still for today’s Tories, changing PM now would involve throwing a successor into the most acute living standards crunch for a generation. Even those backbenchers determined not to be led by Johnson at the next election should logically let him soak up the unpopularity that soaring household bills are bound to cause and then unleash a credible “clean-skin” successor, should they be able to find one, next spring rather than this one as the economic outlook improves.
But logic is not the dominant factor at work among Tory MPs just now. Dozens harbour grudges against Johnson, either on account of his past Brexiteering or because he has withheld personal preferment from them or, worse, sacked them from frontbench posts.
The Commons Privileges Committee may yet find that the Prime Minister did knowingly deceive Parliament, in which case he will clearly have to go. But it would be extremely foolish to bring about such a change without having the first idea of who could pick up the reins post-Johnson.
Polling increasingly shows that Tory supporters in the country realise this. According to a YouGov survey this month, around two-thirds would prefer him to stay and only a quarter want him gone. His successful leadership on Ukraine and the Rwanda deal over Channel migrants give grounds to think a political recovery is not beyond him, whatever his detractors say.
If Conservative MPs confuse a leftist clamour to oust Boris Johnson with the settled view of those likely to consider voting Tory in 2024, then they will deserve every misfortune coming their way.