It is often said that most Conservative MPs have a highly ‘transactional’ relationship with Boris Johnson.
The inference is that in an ideal world they would not choose to be led by someone they regard as having far too many foibles and shortcomings and will only tolerate him being PM while he continues to be a winner.
The Times political commentator Rachel Sylvester set this out fluently during an appearance on Channel 4 News at the height of the ‘curtaingate’ affair last month.
‘The danger for Boris Johnson is if MPs feel he is no longer a winner they will turn on him,’ she said, adding that she had been told by one former Conservative Cabinet minister recently: ‘There are a lot of plotters hiding in a lot of bushes just waiting to pounce.’
In which case there must have been a lot of whimpering in the rhododendrons early on May 7 when the result of the Hartlepool by-election and early local government results showed that Johnson had once more fulfilled his side of this political bargain in spades. As the veteran election-watcher professor Tony Travers put it, the PM had once more shown himself to be a ‘remarkable election winner.’
‘It looks as if, certainly in the less urban parts of the Midlands and the north, that the votes that used to be Labour votes have gone to Ukip because of Brexit and then on to the Conservative party... It is impossible to deny that Boris Johnson as the Conservative leader is a remarkable election winner. It looks as if his image, his way of doing things, appeals to voters who at one point voted Labour,’ noted professor Travers.
Even Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner appeared to agree when she later observed:
“‘People like the authentic. For a long time people have felt that politicians are just saying what they think they want to hear. Or they try to “triangulate”, is the word they use. I call it magnolia politics. And Boris just sort of cut through that.’
All of which means that it is probably time for the Conservative parliamentary party to stand its conversation about Boris on its head. The pertinent question now is not how long Tory MPs should put up with him being PM, but what they can do to extend his political longevity.
Conservative electoral success is now based on a novel coalition of support ranging from traditional shire Tories to well-to-do commuter belt voters and, most crucially, the pro-Brexit and mainly working-class cultural conservatives of the ‘red wall’. Without this third element the Tory hegemony risks collapse.
Yet can Tory MPs be sure that any other senior figure would sustain it nearly as well as Boris Johnson does? ‘Dishy Rishi’ Sunak may have a growing fan club among the liberal-leaning middle classes, but could he really connect with the working-class provincial voter as Boris has? That must be doubtful. Even more doubtful is the idea of Liz Truss, that great libertarian would-be shrinker of the state, doing so. In fact, looking around the Cabinet table, there is no obvious or sure-fire replicator of the ‘Boris effect’.
The Conservative parliamentary party would do well to reflect on the fact that their mercurial leader nearly died last year, is known to have personal finances that are very stretched and yet could earn an instant fortune out of office, has a stressful private life as a new father in late middle age and is said to have had numerous ‘low’ spells when he has not enjoyed life in Downing Street at all.
Perhaps the lurkers in the bushes should seek out some of Labour’s ‘curry house plotters’ who pushed Tony Blair out in the confident expectation that Gordon Brown would prove as electorally potent. They could even ask the famous Sarah Palin question: ‘How’s that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?’
No doubt Tory donors will still blanche at the idea of being asked to fund someone to change the PM’s baby’s nappies or to help him with refurbishment costs. And ousted Cameron-era Conservatives will continue to look down their noses at him for advocating popular policies such as constraining the foreign aid budget or standing up to Brussels.
But they’d need to be out of their minds or consumed by bitterness to behave in ways that will increase the risk of him stepping down early and leaving an unproven successor to lead the Tories into the next general election. Logic would instead suggest creating multiple Boris Support Groups to assist the PM with the issues that cause him difficulties. As Joni Mitchell once put it, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.