Katy Balls

The collapse: how Red Wall MPs turned on Boris

The collapse: how Red Wall MPs turned on Boris
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On Tuesday night, Boris Johnson loyalists were desperately trying to halt a spate of letters of no confidence going to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers. They had thought there was plenty of time, that no MPs would move until Sue Gray’s report into the ‘partygate’ scandal was published. ‘Wait for the Gray report’ had become the answer to every awkward question. But it turned out that almost two dozen MPs from the 2019 intake were about to break ranks.

In what was dubbed the ‘Pork Pie plot’ — a weak joke explained by the prominent role played by the MP for Rutland and Melton Alicia Kearns — this group discussed their options when it came to Johnson’s departure and arranged a secret ballot to show how many had already sent letters. It was half the room.

When the news broke, ministers began to brief out that these MPs were ungrateful: how many, it was asked, owe their jobs to Boris Johnson? It was no way to win them over. As with Jacob Rees-Mogg’s attack on Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Tories, the response of Johnson’s loyalist supporters alienated more Tory MPs.

In a bid to prevent another Red Wall MP joining the rebellion, a government whip said that all letters submitted are discussed by a committee of senior Tories. The implication was clear: forget about anonymity. Send a letter and your name will become public whether you like it or not.

It was quite a threat — but, as the MP soon found out, a lie. The only person who reads such letters is the famously discreet Graham Brady. The use of such dishonesty, in response to a scandal triggered by dishonesty, served only to inflame the situation. It also summed up how many of the MPs elected in 2019 feel they are treated by their seniors: patronised and belittled.

Only two years ago, these MPs were Johnson’s biggest cheerleaders in parliament. The Prime Minister in turn proudly referred to them as his ‘Blue Wall MPs’ and bragged that they had together ‘changed the political heartlands’ by winning seats in the Midlands and North. One of his first acts on winning the 2019 election was to pose for a group photo with them.

Now they are the ones leading the push to oust Johnson from Downing Street. Perhaps their revolt is in response to their own political predicament: polling suggests that the ex-Labour voters who turned to the Tories are fast becoming disillusioned. One recent poll suggests that, if an election were held tomorrow, Conservatives would lose all but three of their 45 Red Wall seats. ‘There are enough people who now feel the situation is terminal for Boris to be a real risk,’ says one 2019 MP.

Another Red Wall MP — Christian Wakeford the member for Bury South — has even defected to Labour in protest at Johnson’s government. With a majority of 402, he judges his odds of keeping the seat as better under Keir Starmer. It is a reminder of how Starmer is successfully distancing himself from the Corbyn era; the issue of anti-Semitism was one of those which pushed Bury South into the Tory column.

For Johnson to be at risk of being brought down by the very MPs he once staked his premiership on shows how much things have changed in the past two years. It also points to the difficulties the new intake have had fitting into the Tory party in a parliament disrupted by lockdowns and overseen by a Prime Minister who has struggled to connect to his team in No. 10, let alone his 359 Tory MPs.

The new MPs tend to be much more independent-minded than their predecessors. Many didn’t expect to win their seats and have little in the way of a plan for high office. They see themselves as brands and do much of their work over social media. They never really had an induction into the ways of parliament — they were sent into lockdown months after taking their seats. A lot of them — crucially — have very small majorities.

‘They are more difficult to control,’ says a whip. ‘Many are not Conservatives. They are Brexiteers who stood as Tories.’ Ministers and government aides also cite their lack of experience. ‘The way they have turned on Boris in his time of need is pretty disgusting,’ says a senior aide. ‘They wouldn’t even be here if it weren’t for him.’

What opened up the Red Wall for the Tories in the 2019 election was the idea that politicians were treating voters with contempt: saying one thing and doing another. Attempts by the Labour party and MPs across the spectrum to delay the UK’s exit from the EU allowed the opposition to be depicted as an out-of-touch elite who didn’t understand voter concerns over Brexit. Johnson stood as an insurgent, who seemed like an outsider. A plain-talker who would deliver on his promises (for example, to not raise tax).

But with partygate, these MPs worry that Johnson now looks guilty of the very thing that made the Red Wall winnable in the first place. The man who rode a wave of Brexit anger all the way into No. 10 in 2019 has now unleashed a new wave of anger on himself, over serial denials about parties in Downing Street which took place as the rest of the country abided by Covid restrictions.

‘One of my constituents put it well: “We liked it when he was lying for us, not lying to us”,’ says a minister, frustrated at Downing Street’s repeated denials over lockdown rule-breaking. ‘There’s a simple problem here — we now all think he’s lying,’ says an MP in a Red Wall seat. ‘I know Dominic Cummings is the master of the dark arts, but what he’s saying rings true. It makes sense that the PM was told about the party. Even if he wasn’t, you would figure it out pretty quickly once in that garden.’

Recently, the pollster James Johnson convened a focus group of voters in the Red Wall seat of Bolton North East (which has a wafer-thin Tory majority of 378). When voters were asked whether they would vote for Johnson again now, not one person put their hand up. Instead, they complained that ‘he needs to resign’, ‘has lost all integrity and all trust’ and is ‘a liar’.

One first-time Tory voter remarked: ‘I liked him because he was a bit different to the David Cameron, Eton-educated typical Tory. There was something about him that made him a bit more personable to me. It’s gone now, because we’ve lost that trust in him. Now he’s just a buffoon.’

Still, not everyone thinks it’s time to move. ‘The push to get rid of him now is more the 2019 intake than just the Red Wall. A lot of those newer guys haven’t worked out that if you get 54 names then you need 180 votes to win a confidence vote — and if that part fails, he stays wounded for a year,’ says a longer-serving MP with a comfortable majority in the Red Wall. ‘Those of us who lived through the May years know that.’

After winning his majority, Johnson used a victory speech to say how mindful he was of the need to keep his new supporters. ‘We have won votes and the trust of people who have never voted Conservative before and people who have always voted for other parties,’ he said. ‘Those people want change. We cannot, must not, must not, let them down.’

A little over two years on, and he appears to have done exactly that.

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Written byKaty Balls

Katy Balls is The Spectator's deputy political editor.

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