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James Forsyth

The Tory party is split on one issue: Boris

The Tory party is split on one issue: Boris
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‘I can’t put into words how awful this is’ remarks one Tory MP. The party is split not on the kind of policy issue that people can debate but on the question of one man: the Prime Minister. Neither side is finding this struggle rewarding. The Johnson loyalists feel that they spend all day trying to bail water out of the boat, only to be hit by another wave as yet another story breaks. Those who want Johnson gone fear that the police investigation may slow every-thing down and that the current mantra, ‘Wait for the Sue Gray report’, will simply morph into ‘Wait for the Met report’.

In No. 10, there is still a mood of defiance. Just because the police are investigating matters doesn’t prove that regulations have been broken, they say, and the punishment for breaching Covid rules is generally only a penalty charge notice. Those around Johnson have consistently underestimated how serious this crisis is. They haven’t understood that the anger about it isn’t tribal; it’s not just felt by those who don’t like the government but by natural Tory supporters too. Tory MPs with local elections in May report council candidates pulling out because they feel they can’t face the reaction on the doorstep, even in Tory wards.

Can Johnson turn this situation around? Once prime-ministerial approval ratings go into decline they rarely revive, but Johnson’s supporters hope that he’ll prove an exception, and that his reputation for defying political convention will persuade his parliamentary party to give him one more chance. ‘The majority of MPs still want things to be all right,’ says one Johnson confidant. But things being all right will require Johnson to sort out the problems that have bedevilled his premiership. In a sign of the current mood, one of his more loyal cabinet ministers observes: ‘He is like a primordial evolutionary being. He only responds to intense pressure in the here and now.’

Will the threat of extinction motivate Johnson to change? Even if he does, things may already have gone too far. The mood in the parliamentary party is appalling. MPs are fed up with trying to explain events to voters who are brimming with righteous anger. They also feel resentment at how they’ve been treated. When Johnson pleaded with one new MP not to put a letter of no confidence in, the MP replied that this was the first time Johnson had spoken to him in 25 months. Why should he offer his support? One Tory grandee, also appealed to by Johnson, responded with a list of assurances the PM had given him but failed to honour. ‘This isn’t normal politics. It is mutiny on the Bounty,’ explains one secretary of state.

It is difficult to know how events will unfold for two reasons. First, the precise nature of the Gray report will matter a lot. Secondly, it is, in the words of one member of the government payroll, ‘increasingly hard to read the parliamentary party, as everybody is getting to the lying-to-everyone stage’.

Those ministers trying to save Johnson have been ringing round colleagues trying to check on their mood. But not all of them have been forthcoming. It is telling that they talk of 100 MPs who are willing and trusted enough to feed information back to the campaign to save Johnson. That leaves more than 250 who are not. These numbers will become increasingly important if the 54 letters needed for a confidence vote do go in. One cabinet minister says that the Johnson team are ‘acting as if the vote is coming’.

One of the dangers for the Tory party is that this will drag on without any resolution for months, with the police inquiry constantly featuring in the news. In these circumstances, the issue will contaminate the Tory brand in the way that sleaze did in the 1990s. Another risk is paralysis. The government is currently short of both political capital and authority. In these circumstances, it is hard to push through a reform agenda. This problem is compounded by continuing uncertainty about what Johnson wants to do. One influential figure on the right of the party, whose support will be crucial for Johnson if he is to survive the coming weeks, laments that the Prime Minister ‘isn’t giving his supporters any sort of plan they can rally to’.

The other great risk is that in a desperate attempt to improve its position, the government will indulge in a form of sugar-rush politics, making policy with no thought to anything but immediate survival.

One long-serving Tory MP fears discipline in the party is too broken down to be recovered in this parliament: ‘I don’t think we want to be in government any more.’ Pointing to the crisis in both the whips’ office and No. 10, he remarks: ‘This is like multiple organ failure.’ A former cabinet minister frets that ‘there always comes a point when we behave like this, when we take being in power for granted and forget who put us there. We did it between 1995 and 1997 and I fear we are doing it again’.

There is, though, a crucial difference between now and the mid-1990s. Then, Labour was so far ahead in the polls that it was clear the next election was lost for the Tories come what may, and this encouraged the Tory descent. The Tories had no politician to match Tony Blair’s appeal and they had lost their reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday. Even several years of solid growth could not bring it back.

Today, by contrast, the Labour lead in the polls is considerable but not unusual for mid-term. Starmer’s own ratings are better than they were, but a majority of voters still don’t see him as a prime minister-in-waiting, and the government haven’t suffered anything as humiliating as the U-turn on the exchange rate mechanism.

The Tories’ fate is not yet sealed, but if they’re to wriggle free from this mess and win a fifth consecutive term in government, they must begin by knowing what they want to do with it.

I reckon we won’t invade until...
‘I reckon we won’t invade until Putin hears what Sue Gray has to say.’