If by the end of today 54 members of the parliamentary Conservative party have not handed in the letters required to trigger a leadership contest — or if the cabinet has not told Boris Johnson he must resign — the Tories will have revealed their contempt for the public.
The mob is fickle, they will be thinking. Granted, today’s opinion polls are dreadful — two-thirds of those questioned thought he should go. But their calculation will be that the voters can always be persuaded to ‘move on’. And no one is better than using a promise he intends to break, a stunt devoid of meaning, a bridge to nowhere or a phantom high-speed railway line to encourage the masses to shift themselves than Boris Johnson is. He’s had so much practice, after all.
Political commentators have assured them that Johnson is ‘immune to all scandal’. So let’s not be hasty. Let’s not believe that Teflon coating has worn away with overuse, leaving only the remains of an old tin pan behind.
Johnson’s obituaries will record that he was the prime minister who introduced us to the ‘throwing a dead cat on the table’ strategy. ‘The key point,’ he explained, is that everyone ‘will be talking about the dead cat — the thing you want them to talk about — and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief’. Surely, his Conservative colleagues must be thinking, the old chucker has a few cats left to kill.
Conservative MPs say but they are angry. But their procrastination belies their words. Westminster correspondents report that the ‘consensus’ is not to move against Johnson yet.
Only a handful disagreed. `We should get rid of him,' one told the BBC, off the record, of course. ‘We should own the situation. We are the Tory party. We are not delivering good governance,’ said another, who once again was not brave enough to speak out without first receiving promises of anonymity. Tellingly, only Douglas Ross and Ruth Davidson spoke well and in public on how they could not support a prime minister found to have broken rules he insisted the little people follow. But then Scottish Conservatives know what a gift Johnson is to the Union’s enemies, while the majority of English Tories either don’t know or don’t care.
They prefer to wait to see what else journalists can find. Or to hold fire until after the local elections in May, which will test the hypothesis that the plebs always find something new to bother their silly little heads.
The Conservative caricature of liberal metropolitan elitists is that they look down on the common people from their ivory towers in Hampstead or some other gilded suburb. If nothing else, this scandal has sent that exhausted cliché to an unmarked grave.
It’s not just that nothing screams ‘elite’ so loudly as Downing Street’s conviction that it is above the law. I have had perceptive Tory MPs point out to me that Johnson and his allies operate on the cartoon Remainer assumption that a majority of voters are a little bit thick and a little bit racist and they can twist them round their little fingers anytime they choose.
Not all voters: just those who vote Conservative. And here we come to a second contemptuous supposition the Downing Street party scandal has revealed. On the left, there’s a longstanding view that Tories don’t disapprove of Johnson because he’s mendacious and always on the sponge. On the contrary, they like it because they want permission to do the same themselves. They are not outraged that the police pursue ‘common criminals’ but never investigate his alleged offences. Rather, they thrill to his ability to get away with it because it nurtures in them the hope that they will be able to get away with it too.
Do Conservative MPs secretly think that the lefties they despise are right about Conservatives voters and that the Tory base — in all senses of that word — will turn on them if they force ‘Boris’ out? I once thought slogans about ‘evil Tories’ an adolescent smear. But Conservative politicians know their supporters better than I do.
You might object that there is nothing cowardly or dishonourable in MPs waiting to find out if the voters truly think that Johnson is rotten. We are a democracy. Johnson won a mandate in 2019. Who are they to put themselves above the electorate?
Let me be clear about what is being lost if a fake appeal to democratic virtue prevails. Conservative MPs will be saying that Johnson can do whatever he wants once in power. Their role as gatekeepers and watchdogs will have shrunk to nothing. They will never ‘own the situation’.
Nine times Johnson has said that he, his staff and the civil service did nothing wrong. ‘All guidance was followed completely in No. 10,’ he told parliament on 1 December. The video of his PRs joking about breaking lockdown rules left him ‘sickened’ and ‘furious’, he said on 8 December. ‘I follow the rules. Everybody across politics should follow the rules,’ he said on 15 December.
The rules once said that lying to parliament was an offence that finished a politician’s career. Parliament is not an abstract entity. Johnson has not just lied to a building or even to the opposition but to Conservative MPs themselves.
If they allow him to carry on, they will not just be showing contempt for the bereaved relatives who couldn't attend the funerals of the people they loved, the children and grandchildren who could not visit their parents and grandparents, the hundreds of thousands whose mental health deteriorated and lives shrunk as they followed his lockdown rules. More than anything else Conservative MPs will reveal that they hold themselves in contempt — and on that least, they will have a point.