Never was the puritanical Protestantism of politics in Great Britain made clearer than in the downfall of Boris Johnson. The champion of Brexit who secured an eighty-seat majority for his party at a general election was laid low by that most devastating and destructive of enemies: a piece of cake enjoyed at a work gathering that many—including the Metropolitan Police—construed as a social event. And so, the United Kingdom finds itself in the midst of a contest for the leadership of the Conservative party.
Johnson himself had ascended to the prime ministerial office after just such a leadership election in 2019: Theresa May threw in the towel following her repeated failures to get Parliament to approve any of her Brexit deals. (In the interest either of full disclosure or self-importance, I am obliged to note that I worked for Johnson’s campaign in that bout.) He won a sweeping victory of 66.4 per cent of the Conservative membership’s vote against his rival Jeremy Hunt’s 33.6 per cent and on July 24, 2019, “kissed hands” with the Sovereign and was appointed her Prime Minister.
Inheriting a minority government, Johnson had no more success than his predecessor in getting the truculent House of Commons to pass an agreement to leave the European Union. The government’s working majority (thanks to confidence and supply provided by MPs from Ulster’s Democratic Unionist Party) had effectively been shot to pieces. Party numbers didn’t reflect the everyday reality when the issue was not one of which leader you support but how or even if the UK should leave the European Union. Tory Remainers were effectively a Trojan horse for the opposition within the ostensible government party, and there was every chance that Parliament might go rogue by passing legislation regarding Brexit that the government itself did not support.
Johnson did what he could, deploying legal and constitutional jiggery-pokery while hemmed in by the fact that—thanks to David Cameron’s Fixed Term Parliaments Act—he couldn’t call a general election by prime ministerial fiat as Britain’s constitution had previously allowed. Speaker John Bercow had abandoned all pretence of impartiality by aiding the Remainers in Parliament who wanted to block both a deal itself and a no-deal Brexit. The Supreme Court of the United Kingdom—a Blairite constitutional innovation—even intervened by ruling Johnson didn’t have sufficient grounds for advising the Queen to prorogue Parliament—an unprecedented judicial innovation. It was clear nothing could proceed with the Parliament that stood, but Johnson succeeded in passing a one-off act simply calling an early general election (Fixed Term Parliaments Act notwithstanding).
This report appears in September’s Quadrant.
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The subsequent vote was ground-breaking. Pro-Brexit Conservative candidates united behind Johnson managed to smash into the “red wall” of northern Labour seats—many of them turning blue for the first time in nearly a century. Bishop Auckland returned the first Conservative MP in its 134-year history, as traditional Labour voters who had also backed Brexit decided to give Johnson’s team a chance.
The new Prime Minister used his mandate to pass the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 which received royal assent on January 23, ratified by the European Parliament days later. At 11 p.m. on January 31, 2020, the United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union, forty-seven years after joining the European Economic Community in 1973.
By virtue of securing Brexit, Boris Johnson had managed to make more history in the first six months of his tenure in Downing Street than some prime ministers have in their entire time in office. But the very day Brexit became reality, the BBC reported that two Chinese nationals staying at a hotel in York had tested positive for the novel coronavirus that had emerged in Wuhan, China, a month earlier—the first cases of Covid in the UK.
Having endured but finally solved the saga of Brexit, the country, like the rest of the world, was plunged into the coronavirus drama. The threat to public health allowed the state unprecedented interference into the ordinary lives of citizens through strenuous regulations and emergency measures. Several lockdowns varied in what was and what was not allowed, but the revelation that the Prime Minister had been ambushed with a piece of cake on his birthday in his place of employ provoked fury and rage on the part of his opponents. His initial chief adviser Dominic Cummings was revealed to have driven his children to be looked after by other family members and made other trips all of which it turned out were completely within the law. Civil servants and political appointees working in Downing Street—facing immense pressure in an unprecedented crisis—were severely criticised for drinking cheap white wine after a long day’s work or gathering in the office to see off colleagues who they had worked beside in stressful circumstances who were leaving for new positions.
Over arduous weeks, Johnson lost immense political capital thanks to his failure to tackle the issue head-on and his typically evasive responses. Whether in Parliament or the country at large, some are convinced the Prime Minister was the greatest exemplar of lying hypocrisy since the Dawn of Man while others are convinced he did nothing wrong, immoral or illegal—merely unwise. The gap between these two views is effectively insurmountable, but the political damage has been immense. There is a feeling among Boris supporters that the media and the establishment class consider Brexit an unpardonable and irredeemable act for which the Prime Minister must be forced to pay, one way or another.
Despite the onslaught of criticism and allegations of hypocrisy, Johnson stood firm until the straw that broke the camel’s back arrived in the form of a good old-fashioned sex scandal. Chris Pincher MP is as apt an example of nominative determinism as ever walked the halls of Westminster. In a subculture where unwanted sexual attention is unfortunately more frequent than in the world outside, the government’s Deputy Chief Whip had long had a reputation for roving hands and improper conduct towards young men. Following a drunken evening in the Carlton Club during which he was alleged to have sexually assaulted two men, Pincher was forced to resign from the Whips’ office while retaining his seat and his status in the parliamentary party. Further allegations against Pincher came to light, and Johnson admitted it had been a “bad mistake” to ignore the MP’s reputation and previous allegations and appoint him to a government position.
The double resignation of Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Chancellor Rishi Sunak on July 5 provoked a wave of resignations the following day. With sixty-two of the collected 179 government ministers, parliamentary private secretaries, trade envoys and the party co-chairman resigning from office, Boris Johnson was persuaded to call it quits on July 7 with plans for a new leader to take the helm on September 5.
The 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs agreed on the timeline for choosing a new leader on July 11. Nominations would open and close the following day, with each candidate needing the support of at least twenty colleagues from the parliamentary party to make it to the first ballot on July 13. With the entire parliamentary party voting, leadership candidates would need to secure thirty votes in order to proceed to the second ballot. The candidate with the lowest votes would be eliminated until only two candidates remained, and their names would be put to the overall membership of the Conservative party to decide which would become party leader and thus the presumptive next Prime Minister once the Sovereign was certain he or she could command the confidence of the House of Commons.
The early front-runner was the unruffled Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace. Polls of members and soundings of MPs showed Wallace ahead by a large margin, but he decided against throwing his hat in the ring. Dominic Cummings, the impishly difficult former adviser to Boris who has turned into one of Johnson’s most fervent opponents, speculated about candidates being “spad shaggers” (sleeping with their appointed special advisers) but declined to name names. It was alleged that a campaign to launch Nadhim Zahawi into Number Ten was being crafted by Mark Fullbrook, a former associate of the election guru Lynton Crosby, but questions about the Baghdad-born MP’s personal financial interests quickly holed his bid below the waterline.
Rishi Sunak, the resigned Chancellor of the Exchequer whose furlough programs to keep people employed during Covid were much praised, quickly emerged as the favourite, attracting big names as well as strong numbers of parliamentary supporters. Sunak’s rise is all the more surprising since just months ago his star waned when it was revealed his wife has non-domiciled status, allowing her to avoid paying tax on her income earned abroad while living in the United Kingdom. This at a time when the UK’s tax burden is the highest since the Attlee government and ordinary voters are facing a severe cost-of-living crisis.
Penny Mordaunt emerged as the emissary of the dark forces of establishment liberalism. Further along the social liberal spectrum than even Cameron, Mordaunt served as equalities minister, in which role she ardently defended proposed government legislation that used the term “birthing person” instead of mothers, even after the Lords justifiably exercised their revising capacity in amending it to refer to mothers. Despite being the wokest of woke, Mordaunt was popular with party members owing to her militarist persona—she is a low-ranking Royal Navy reservist, daughter of a naval officer, and was named after HMS Penelope. But the more party members learnt about Mordaunt the less they liked her. All the same, she nearly made it to the final round.
The continuity-Boris candidate turned out to be Liz Truss. Raised by liberal academics, Truss was a Liberal Democrat as a teenager, speaking to their party conference and—worse—calling for the abolition of the monarchy. She converted to Thatcherism and the Conservative party shortly after finishing university in the mid-1990s and entered Parliament in 2010, serving as a junior education minister before being appointed Environment Secretary and then Lord Chancellor—the first woman to hold this ancient office. A liberal herself, she proved willing to challenge the woke consensus by urging government departments to disaffiliate from sexual activist group Stonewall’s Diversity Champions program on the grounds that it was poor value for money for the taxpayer. Using liberal arguments to achieve conservative ends might mean that Truss, so often breezily dismissed as a lightweight, could have more political prudence and understanding than expected.
The social Right of the party failed to unite around a single candidate, though Kemi Badenoch’s bid marked her out as the brightest and most plausible of all those seeking the leadership. As a black woman who is deeply anti-woke, she would have been electoral kryptonite for Labour and would have stood the best chance of winning the next general election, securing a two-decade streak of Conservative-led government in Britain. But Badenoch was fishing in the same pond for votes as rivals Suella Braverman, the outspoken Attorney General, and Jeremy Hunt, the former Health Secretary who made it to the final round in the last leadership election. This kept all three towards the bottom of the table of MP supporters, allowing Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss to steal the limelight, gain momentum, and make it to the final two names presented to party members for the vote.
The battle between Liz and Rishi has evoked no great enthusiasm from anybody. Boris supporters, Brexiteers and the social Right have largely swung in behind Truss and her ascent now looks unassailable. If Sunakites hit home when attacking Truss’s lack of gravitas, Liz supporters’ criticism that Rishi is a numbers man who lacks vision also rings true.
What is Truss’s vision? She’s made sometimes cringe-worthy attempts to portray herself as the next Maggie but as commentator (and former Commons clerk) Eliot Wilson has sharply pointed out, “If the Conservative party is to develop a coherent, effective and radical set of policies for the 2020s and beyond, it must consign Thatcherism to glorious history.”
Twelve years of Conservative government do actually have some accomplishments to show: holding a referendum on the EU, delivering Brexit, commissioning a record-breaking coronavirus vaccine, the rollout of two jabs of that vaccine plus a booster, protecting jobs and small businesses during the lockdown. All of these, however, are effective responses to emergencies rather than the fruits of a positive vision. Good policy-making is dependent upon ideas and the ecosystem needed for conservative ideas to be proposed, debated, shot down, championed or enacted simply does not exist. Decades of dumbing down education and the hollowing out of institutions has resulted in rampant mediocrity. People are less clever, institutions are less resilient, and the paucity of serious talent in the front bench of both parliamentary parties reflects this.
On the Blue Labour side, Dr John Ritzema has pointed out that the British constitution makes Parliament, and therefore the executive that controls it, “basically omnipotent”, yet “it’s almost unfathomable how unwilling the Tories are to use the power they fight so ruthlessly to acquire”. Entrenched liberalism, whether social or economic, has killed Conservative leaders’, cabinet members’ and MPs’ ability to conceive of the effective exercise of state power which is so obviously needed to solve the problems of today. Energy bills are skyrocketing and sclerotic planning procedures prevent new homes and infrastructure being built. Ambulance services are strained thanks to underinvestment while the NHS is bloated with highly paid administrators and a shortage of trained doctors and nurses.
Sometimes you need a Thatcher—Britain in the 1970s certainly did. But sometimes you need a de Gaulle to craftily wield the state rather than roll it back. Labour is incapable of moving rightwards on social issues, but the Conservatives are capable of moving in a less liberal direction on economics. This presents Tories with a huge strategic advantage—but only if they realise it and use it. The Conservative party needs to give voters a reason to vote Conservative.
Andrew Cusack’s previous London Letter appeared in the June issue