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#AceNewsDesk – Boris Johnson rages at the Cabinet Office three times over: over it referring him to the police; its conduct in relation to the Covid Inquiry, and its new co-operation with the Standards Committee. He is angry because he is frightened.
Not over the police referral: after all, the only risk he runs over claimed further breaches of Covid restrictions is of further fines. These would be embarrassing for him, but scarcely threaten his place in the Commons.
Not over the Covid Inquiry, either. Its report will doubtless be bad for him – as it will be for other former Ministers in his government, perhaps including the present Prime Minister – but won’t suspend him from Parliament, because it isn’t empowered to. Anyway, while its evidence sessions start soon, its report won’t be published for several years – perhaps many. And for Johnson, tomorrow is always another day.
No, what alarms him is the passing of diary entries from his period in office, in which further breaches of the Covid rules may be detailed, to the committee – expressly with the approval of Ministers. It is investigatingwhether he misled the Commons over “the legality of activities in 10 Downing Street and the Cabinet Office under Covid regulations”.
If it concludes that he did, and the House then votes to suspend him for ten days or more, he is open to a recall petition. If it gathers the required number of his constituents – ten per cent – a by-election is automatically triggered. The assumption in the Westminster Village to date has been that he would lose it.
In which event, Johnson would have been censured by the Commons and rejected by his constituents. Calls would follow for him to be barred from the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary candidates list. There would be pushback in parts of the media. Our surveys suggest that most of them believe the inquiry is unfair and that Johnson’s candidacy should stand.
Nonetheless, his support among the Parliamentary Party isn’t what it was. Only 21 Conservative MPs came with him into the lobbies to vote against the Windsor Framework. Support for him on the record over his blowup with the Cabinet Office has been visible by its absence.
The long and short of it is that were Rishi Sunak to want Johnson barred from the list in this circumstance, he would be. No other seat would be allowed to adopt him as a Tory candidate. And in the event of the Conservatives losing the general election, why should a new Tory leader want him back? After all, destabilising the party leadership is a Johnson speciality.
No wonder it’s claimed that, rather than face a by-election, he would stand down from the Commons. That wouldn’t enable him to dodge future suspension from the list, but he could at least thereby duck the humiliation of electoral defeat.
However, today he finds the dark clouds gathering round his head pierced by a tantalising shaft of light. For on this site, Lord Ashcroft reports his new poll in Johnson’s constituency. It finds that he would win any by-election, scooping up half the vote. He adds that while “sceptics will make several points about this result, all of them valid”…”there are good reasons to accept the picture at face value”.
So suppose for a moment that the committee indeed suspends Johnson for more than ten days, that a recall petition is successful…but that Johnson then stands and wins the subsequent by-election. This would change everything – at least, politically.
The good people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip would thereby put up two fingers to Harriet Harman, the committee’s chair, any Conservative member of it who supported the suspension, and indeed the entire House of Commons (or rather the necessary majority who voted to back to committee’s finding). The people would have spoken!
No removal from the Tory parliamentary candidates’ list could credibly follow. Johnson would presumably then win the seat once again at the next general election. No exile for him. No casting out from the Garden of Eden. “Boris is back!”
Now think on. Sunak will either win that election, in which case Johnson will rock his boat, or else will have lost, in which event he will capsize it, or try to. And the fires of the latter’s leadership ambitions are far from spent. That’s why he’s still an MP, after all, at least in this scenario. In that blond breast burn hopes of a Churchillian return.
I can’t quite see Conservative MPs, after the events of the past few years, putting his name to the members, at least in the immediate aftermath of an election defeat. However, none of the potential candidates to replace Sunak as Tory leader are especially convincing. That threatens the worst of all worlds.
A few weeks ago, I had Johnson in his study, contemplating the future. In it, Keir Starmer is Prime Minister. The voters don’t like Labour much but are prepared after 13 Conservative years to give him a chance. The new Tory leader is becalmed. In these circumstances, a push to bring back Johnson becomes more plausible.
At least to him. And to demoralised or discontented Conservative MPs. And to bits of the Tory media. And to Party activists in search of a comfort blanket. Especially, perhaps, if Donald Trump is America’s President once again. Take a leaf out of the Republican book, Team Johnson will say, and bring back a proven winner.
Disraeli was said to be Lord Derby’s necessity and his curse. Parts of ConservativeWorld continue to insist that “Britain Trump” is the party’s necessity. But wouldn’t it be haunted, in the circumstances, by the curse of Johnson?
Is the public really willing to forget the parties – or, more to the point, the tax rises and record immigration (even if Party members are prepared to do so)? In many ways, that verdict is a harsh one. Johnson’s premiership was plagued by pandemic and war.
He helped to shape western support for Ukraine and delivered a vaccine triumph. He had noble ambitions for housing which Tory backbenchers snuffed out. But it can’t truthfully be claimed that his time in office was marked by strategic purpose. Or that his instinct to spend more now and tax if necessary didn’t run into trouble.
The worst possible outcome for the Conservative Party is that it becomes a supporting actor in the Johnson tragicomedy – and that the play goes on and on, “stretching before and after”, like time in Eliot’s poem. David Cameron, Theresa May, Rishi Sunak: all have been upstaged by Johnson. Who’s next?
Some will say that the bullet is better bitten now, and that the Commons would be better off without him. I can’t get there. On the one hand, I feel somehow that Johnson may be needed, if the war in Eastern Europe worsens further. And that his suspension from the House would be unjustified – an act of politics – not justice.
I thought that he gave a good account of himself before the committee, and that the vote to set up an inquiry was driven by malice, party manoeuvres and a thirst for revenge. Furthermore, the yoking together of supension and recall is unplanned and unfair, as Conservative members of the committee recognise.
On the other, the scenario I set out may be unlikely but it’s entirely possible. And the Tory psychology it describes is real. The Party is carrying a burden. Sometimes, it makes light of it – or pretends it isn’t there. At others, it sags under its weight. It twists and turns, shrugs and writhes. But it can’t get the monkey off its back.
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