“Guyat”. “Scoundrel”. “Dirty guy”. The words members of the British public used to describe Prime Minister Boris Johnson a fortnight ago following an unsuccessful bid by MPs from his own Conservative Party to impeach him sounded eerily antique. Nobody in England really talks like that anymore.
But then, Johnson is an oddly ancient figure. He could be a villain in one of Charles Dicken’s novels, or an inept comic cad in a PG Wodehouse story, or at best the fictional schoolboy Billy Bunter in the Boys’ Weekly. The magnet (1908-1940). But behind the facade of a well-meaning but bewildered tof, there is only one crook.
Johnson’s penultimate predecessor as prime minister, David Cameron, once called him a “greased piglet” who “manages to slip into the hands of others where mere mortals fail”. He always gets in trouble, but somehow he always gets out of it. So far.
He lies by reflex, even when he doesn’t need to and everyone in the country knows it. He is obviously self-interested, unashamedly, and his only notable achievement in almost three years in office has been to “get Brexit done”. Except it’s not “done”; it collapses again.
His relationship with the Conservative Party he leads has always been transactional. Most of his fellow parliamentarians dislike and distrust him, but they thought he could win elections for them because so many voters fell under Johnson’s drawling spell. They knowingly swallowed his lies and gave him an 80-seat majority in the last election.
But it’s all over now. Public opinion has turned against him, Labor has led the Conservatives in the polls by around 10% since the end of 2021, and so he is no longer fulfilling his part of the bargain that made him prime minister. If there were an election today, the conservatives would lose overwhelmingly.
The Tories are famous for their ruthlessness in ditching leaders who cannot deliver on their promises, and true to form, there was an attempt to dump Johnson last weekend. More than 15% of party MPs demanded a secret ballot on its leadership, which automatically triggered the June 6 vote.
It failed, as everyone expected, because the ‘payroll vote’ (MPs who hold government jobs and are forced to support the Prime Minister) accounts for nearly half of all Tory MPs . But the revolt came much closer to success than the rebels had hoped, and it was the start of an almost unstoppable process.
The final tally was 211 votes to keep Johnson as party leader (and therefore prime minister); 148 votes to bring it down. It’s not “an extremely good, positive, conclusive, decisive result”, as Johnson claimed. It is a loss from which there is no turning back.
One reason is that a clear majority of “backbench MPs” (those not participating in the “payroll vote”) voted to change the leader. Now that they know their own numbers, they’ll be more confident and persistent, knowing that they just have to wait for some of the rats (or rather ministers, deputy ministers and parliamentary private secretaries) to jump ship that flows.
The other reason is that the British public (including Tory voters) has finally made up its mind about Johnson. The deciding factor was “Partygate”: the endless succession of boozy going away parties, birthday parties and “Thank God it’s Friday” parties that took place in Johnson’s home and offices at most strong from Covid lockdowns in Britain.
There were months of leaks and drip fines, giving everyone plenty of time to contemplate the chasm of behavior between ordinary people who obeyed the rules, even to the point of not visiting members of the family who died in hospitals and privileged political operators who thought they were above the rules. This would prove fatal for Johnson’s premiership.
Johnson may falter for a while, issuing random threats and promises — to start a trade war with the European Union, or to bring back “imperial measures” (inches, ounces and quarters) — all in the hope of resurrect his starring role in the old Brexit wars at home. But he won’t go very far.
From now on, he will have to face the same kind of guerrilla warfare that he himself used to bring down his predecessor, Theresa May. Rebels within his own party will ally themselves with opposition parties to thwart any deliberately provocative legislation he tries to push through.
Labor, of course, is praying that Johnson will stay in power until the next election due in 2024, or choose to call a snap election as a last-ditch gamble: that would all but guarantee a Labor victory. However, the Conservatives are not yet puzzled enough to let that happen. Johnson will be gone within a year.
- Dyer is a freelance journalist based in London. His new book is called The shortest history of the war.