Three weeks ago, I wanted Boris Johnson to lose his no-confidence vote. I was dizzy with the thought that the awful, stuck, unmoving barrier of our political system might yet buckle, and through it our frustrated hopes might yet burst like the glorious phantom of Shelley’s poem “to illumine our tempestuous day.” Now however that Johnson was won that vote, and seeing what happened on Friday, I hope he stays. I hope his will-to-power becomes his own torment. I know what happens to Prime Minister once they have outlived their moment of popular support. They cling. They destroy their own legacy.
Thatcher won 55% of the vote in the first ballot of a leadership contest in 1990, she did not make it to the second round. Theresa May won her non confidence vote in December 2018 by 200 votes to 117, she resigned 6 months later. Tony Blair called the 2005 election promising to quit before the end of his third term. He resigned in spring 2007. In each of these cases, politicians fought against their removal, but struggled pointlessly. Everyone watching knew perfectly well that they would have to leave – and soon.
It is in this final Act of a premiership that its meaning is fixed. Theresa May could not legislate Brexit. Thatcher had to go because she had become a megalomaniac, the we of “We have become a grandmother”. She had forfeited that previous instinct for survival and her ability to play a long game in favour of the champers-and-cocaine hubris of the poll tax.
The scale of Johnsons defeat in the Tiverton and Wakefield by-elections shows that Conservatives will no longer vote for him, that middle of the road voters will pick the Lib Dems, and that a Labour voting base antagonised by Starmer will nevertheless hold together long enough to evict Johnson from office. Of the two votes, Tiverton was far the more important. The Conservatives had a 24,000 majority in 2019; to lose a seat that safe is to be back in the mid-1990s, in the same territory as the 2019 European elections, where the party won less than 9% of the vote. This is right-wing voters wanting their party to suffer, and to change before they will vote for it again.
Labour’s idea of how to bring Johnson down is to repeat what sounds like a compelling message, and one to which no rational being could object. Boris Johnson must leave because he was our king, our law maker, and he would not abide by his own rule. He shamed the law, and so long as he remains in power the state can never be well again.
The supposed genius of this message is that it is one that any Conservative might accept. And therefore one that moderate, right-wing voters can internalise, and that the Conservative press can share and amplify. Repeat and rinse. Repeat, until he leaves.
At its end of this argument is a very cautious solution: replace Boris Johnson with Liz Truss or Rishi Sunk or whoever else, and the state is repaired. Nothing significant needs to change. In relation to the great crises of the day, Covid, climate change – everything can and should stay the same. Ending politics at that point leaves unchallenged Johnson’s riposte, that he and his allies got the big calls right. When of course he did nothing of the sort: his indolence caused tens of thousands of people to die under Covid and his apathy, as the world burns, threatens thousands or millions more. This way of understanding politics makes no one a socialist. Nor does it equip any single voter with a reason to switch from voting Conservative once Johnson’s replacement has been appointed.
There is another way, however, in which the argument could go. Assume, for a moment, that I am right and most voters have now given up on him.
If Johnson remains in place until the last conceivable point at which a palace coup would leave a new leader with a fair chance of winning a general election afterwards (in other words, until somewhere between October 2023 and May 2024), then every time he appears on our shared screens it will be in this context of universal hostility. Every partisan measure, from Rwanda, to weights and measures, to the imagined return of grammar schools… will feel like a desperate ploy of an unpopular populist regime.
The longer Johnson remains in office, now that the people have had enough of him, the more damage he could do to the causes with which he is associated. Why is Johnson a liar? Because of the school he attended, and whose value he embodies.
This is the story for which the left needs to find an audience. Why has he introduced corruption on a massive scale, as over the Covid contracts? Because this is how the Conservatives always reward the rich. What do we need instead of Johnson? Everything gone – Johnson’s class, his generation, his media allies. Everyone tainted by him. All of them.