The worst possible outcome for the Conservative and Unionist party is also a pretty lousy result for the country. That this needs saying – that Tory MPs need reminding of this – is itself yet another data point supporting the proposition that Boris Johnson’s leadership has thoroughly corrupted the party.
So what to do now? This is now the necessary question. Since Johnson will not depart voluntarily he must be pushed. Those cabinet ministers with an ounce – imperial measurements, obviously – of moral fibre must surely recognise the game is up. This barky won’t float. You cannot credibly lose the support of 40 per cent of the party – including a chunky portion of the payroll vote – and remain in office.
For we are now in the enjoyably ludicrous situation of having a prime minister who does not command the confidence of the House of Commons but a government which does. Or, at any rate, could. This being so, cabinet ministers with a care for their own credibility – and, indeed, their own advancement under a different leader – might be wise to ask if they can continue to serve, honourably, in this government. That is a question for their own consciences. Because if it were not clear before this morning it is certainly obvious now that Johnson traps and entangles and besmirches everything he touches. His influence spreads like poison ivy.
And my, the shamelessness. Hark at how the government – or at least the Prime Minister’s – line has evolved in recent months. First, there were no parties in Downing Street and the Prime Minister was not just surprised but furious to discover there might have been. Then there were parties but the Prime Minister was neither present nor involved. Then there were parties at which he was undeniably both. But these parties were special parties, being redefined as work events even though work events of this kind were prohibited at the time they took place. When that line could not hold, they reverted to their bog standard party status but with a twist: it was actually right and wholly proper for the Prime Minister to attend these shindigs. Damn straight it was and not only had he done nothing wrong, he would in fact do it all again. This is the calibre of the man ministers are defending this morning.
Well, if the Prime Minister wishes to play his colleagues for fools that is his business and if they wish to go along with this rigmarole that is theirs. But the country deserves something a little better than this farce.
If there were a coherent, or even semi-coherent, government agenda to serve as a distraction from all this, matters might not seem quite so sunk in hopelessness. But as we all know there is no such agenda. Levelling-up could have been something but since, in effect, it has been decided there cannot be any relative levelling-down, levelling-up would be doomed to failure even if the government could agree on what it might actually be. Meanwhile, families are enduring the largest hit to household incomes since the second world war and the tax burden has reached heights last seen when the bills for that war had to be paid. This is plenty for government to do right now but no government capable of doing it.
Events have conspired against Johnson but his inability to rise to them is hardly a surprise. Nothing he had done in politics before reaching Downing Street offered grounds for thinking he would be a success once he entered it. If these were days of sunshine and frivolity and economic growth of 3.5 per cent a year it might not matter so much. But these are not those kinds of days.
Johnson has always been an amoral creature but the defences mounted by his supporters now teeter on the brink of immorality. The suggestion that we must support Boris because otherwise the United Kingdom will no longer be capable of supporting Ukraine’s resistance against Russian aggression is, even by this government’s standards, a grotesque, shameful, new low. There is nothing to suggest another prime minister could not, or would not, offer the same assistance. The spectacle of the Prime Minister using dead Ukrainians to bolster his own domestic position is revolting. All those who parrot this line – in parliament or the media or even in the country at large – should be ashamed of themselves.
This is a shame-free ministry, of course, so even modest standards of decency are beyond it. Deep down, even many of those who voted for Johnson last night must know he isn’t up to the job. Indeed, the claim he gets the ‘big calls right’ is an admission of incapacity since it acknowledges that the Prime Minister cannot be trusted to get countless smaller decisions right.
So here we are. The government will likely lose in Wakefield and we must hope it loses in Tiverton and then keeps losing wherever and whenever voters are given the opportunity to return a verdict upon it. Only then, perhaps, will Conservative MPs appreciate the deep folly of their previous choices. Only then can there be the prospect of some relief. This stricture extends to the government’s previous friends in the media too for, even on Fleet Street, there must be a limit to how long the unsupportable may be supported.
A Labour government led by Sir Keir Starmer will doubtless disappoint in many ways but, at least initially, these disappointments may lie within the bailiwick of normal politics. Beyond it being time for a change anyway, a Labour government would offer the prospect of some kind of return to decency. That is not too much to ask for but if all Labour is asking for is the chance to serve it may prove enough.
In the meantime, this government – hobbled from the top – will continue its attempt to style it out. The brazenness is as breathtaking as the pretence last night’s vote was merely a flesh wound of no great consequence. The parliamentary party does not have much confidence in the Prime Minister but it still lags far behind the country whose patience for and with this rotting ministry was exhausted some time ago. If nothing else will, perhaps that thought will finally concentrate the minds of Tory MPs and ministers. Almost nothing good can come from Downing Street now because the days when such promise could be reckoned possible came and went long ago.
Despite what he may claim, Johnson is finished. The public know this and their sense of justice demands action. The precise moment of Johnson’s demise may not yet be fixed but the gathering sense of inevitability means last night’s vote was a shattering prime ministerial defeat in all but name. Tick tock. Tick tock. Time’s up.