The mini quiche coup

Sunday National 23rd January 2022.

Like Julius Caesar but with rubber knives. One cherished cliché of the Tory party is that it is ruthless with it wounded leaders. Unlike Labour, which clings to proven losers till the bitter end, the Tory backbenchers like to think they can be relied on to apply extreme unction to Prime Ministers who lose its confidence and become a drag on the party’s electoral fortunes. That’s the theory anyway. In reality, the party’s recent history is much more ambivalent. At some point, party discipline has fallen apart under every recent Tory leader – but only some of them have been put to the sword in the aftermath. With Johnson, which will it be?

Exhibit A is Mrs Thatcher, who was pried from office by internal critics in 1990. John Major famously forced a leadership election in 1995 in an effort to see off his Tory rivals, saying “it is time to put up or shut up.” The right put up John Redwood, but Major won over two-thirds of the subsequent ballot – clinging on as Prime Minister until the whole crew were papped out a couple of years later. Redwood hasn’t shut up since.

During the lean years of New Labour, the “men in grey suits” came knocking for both William Hague, then Iain Duncan Smith, after they struggled to make headway against the then-dominant Tony Blair. David Cameron evaporated so quickly after the Brexit vote, his party colleagues lost the opportunity to plot against him. Theresa May jumped before she was pushed in the spring of 2019, having squandered her majority in the “crush the saboteurs” snap election, and been hobbled for months the serial disloyalty of around a third of her party colleagues.

(Like me, you have no doubt enjoyed the sight of many of these men and women taking to the airwaves this week, extoling the virtues of loyalty to the leader. Or to borrow Jacob Rees-Mogg’s message to his Scottish Tory colleagues – “if you take the King’s shilling you are beholden to the crown.”)

And this week? This week, the new generation of Tory plotters have taken the pork pie as their sigil, the Prime Minister is still dragging his gusset around Westminster and Whitehall showing every sign of settling in for the long haul, even as Labour takes the clear lead in the opinion polls which have eluded them throughout Starmer’s leadership.

Enoch Powell suggested all political lives end in failure. His certainly did. Considering the best guide to future behaviour is past behaviour, it always seemed likely that Boris Johnson’s career would crash to its conclusion in gross moral turpitude of some kind. But is this it? Will he be done in because of a lax HR policy on getting blitzed in the office during periods of acute national crisis, or can he ride out the current turbulence by bloody-minded refusal to quit? Is the right historical parallel Thatcher, or Major?

This week’s internal insurgency against the Prime Minister and his tippling ministry hasn’t exactly been a study in cold-blooded parliamentary savagery, has it?  At least we know the revolution will be catered – but you don’t strike fear into the hearts of your enemies by organising your coup around picnic snacks. Tremble brief mortal, for the Scotch egg mutiny has come for you at last. Feel the mini quiche of justice.

This Sunday, there remain several known unknowns. In order to trigger a leadership ballot, we know 15% of Tory MPs need to write to the chair of the 1922 Committee to express their loss of confidence in the Prime Minister. 54 is the magic number. It remains unclear, despite rampant press speculation, about whether the dissenters are even approaching this number, with the timeline on “reaching 54” given by anonymous sources within the party slipping several times this week. If this threshold isn’t met, then we’ll be living with Johnson for some time yet.

But 15% ungruntled MPs isn’t a majority for anyone else – or even indicative the PM wouldn’t win any subsequent leadership ballot comfortably, hobbled, but hobbling on. Many people seem to assume that he’s doomed as soon as any ballot is triggered. I’m not so sure.

Then there are the threats and menaces – or the alleged threats and menaces – Tory whips have apparently been putting their colleagues under in order to shore up Johnson’s position. This week, Hazel Grove MP William Wragg claimed that party enforcers are essentially blackmailing havering Tories minded to vote against the Prime Minister. “No vote? No local school or hospital.”

Johnson gave a characteristically hedged half-denial designed to insulate himself personally from these allegations, saying he’d “seen no evidence” of blackmail. Perhaps unwisely, his media proxies have been more categorical, with ministers like Conor Burns flatly denying the allegations. Nadine Dorries called them “attention seeking” and “nonsense.” But what if they could be proven otherwise? If you find yourself covertly recording conversations with your colleagues, there may have been a minor breakdown in mutual trust.  But according to the Times, there may be proof of these allegations, including a recording of the chief whip in full flow. Will these materialise? Another unknown.

But if you know anything about political history in the UK, the idea it is unthinkable for governments to act in this way is a bad joke.  Take one example. When the Callaghan government was tottering and facing a knife-edge vote of confidence in March 1979, Labour were scrabbling around for votes wherever they could be found. Roy Hattersly found two – from Ulster Unionists who were prepared to give the government the benefit of the doubt if they committed to building a pipeline between Britain and Northern Ireland. Hattersly’s view was “if a pipeline would do the job of saving the government, then a pipeline there ought to be” but Callaghan wasn’t having it, saying “this government is not for sale.”  Callaghan sailed into a motion of no confidence and the 1979 election instead. Can you really imagine this Prime Minister taking the same view?

And then, at the heart of it all – there is Sue Gray’s civil service report, perhaps the biggest known unknown which so much of the government’s rhetoric has been pinned on. A death sentence? A whitewash? A not proven verdict? Time will tell. But it does make you wonder what the Tories are going to do with Johnson if the “greased piglet” bucks and slurps his way of out the present impasse. The constructive suggestions from party colleagues about how to get the show back on the road are admirably deranged.

This weekend, Tory MP Tobias Ellwood suggested the Full Metal Jacket solution to Downing Street’s woes, arguing in the Telegraph that what the government really needs is the installation of “a military officer” in Number 10 to give the public “a sense of assurance that rigour will return, along with improved command and control.” Because the military take-over of civilian branches of government is, apparently, something we should all be intensely relaxed about. I wonder who Captain Tobias Ellwood, formerly of the Royal Green Jackets, has in mind for the job.

When “Operation Red Meat” hit the slab this week, you wondered what madcap schemes this jittery government would throw down to try to placate its loopier backbenchers. A new royal yacht, perhaps. Leaving the European Union again, but with more gusto this time. War with France. 

“Bring back national service” reliably makes an appearance in such moments of high anxiety for the Conservative Party, as a wizard way of instilling discipline and patriotism in Britain’s feckless youth. But Captain Ellwood’s suggestion that Downing Street would benefit from the same Spartan regime is something of an innovation. The Prime Minister’s dandelion puff will be replaced with a crew cut, cold showers, and a refreshing morning bollocking from his new military attaché.

I suppose the lucky drill sergeant could at least try to limit the grog ration issued to the troops staggering around the No 10 bunker, and alert the Prime Minister if he has – quite innocently, you understand – wandered into an illegal gathering in his back garden. You need the sharp eyes of a light infantryman to spot that kind of ambush from the shrubbery. You can’t expect civilians to make that kind of hard call.  

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