When, on 7 February 1952, Winston Churchill greeted the new Queen on the tarmac at the London Airport after her bleak journey back from Entebbe, he was so overcome by emotion that words eluded him.
But this grief-stricken aphasia – unlike the grief itself – did not last long. In his Address of Sympathy in the House of Commons on the death of George VI on 11 February, he said the following:
“A fair and youthful figure, Princess, wife and mother is the heir to all our traditions and glories never greater than in her father’s days, and to all our perplexities and dangers never greater in peacetime than now. She is also heir to all our united strength and loyalty.
She comes to the Throne at a time when tormented mankind stands uncertainly poised between world catastrophe and a golden age. That it should be a golden age of arts and letters, we can only hope – science and machinery will have their tales to tell – but it is certain that if a true and lasting peace can be achieved, and if the nations will only let each other alone an immense and undreamed of prosperity with culture and leisure ever more widely spread can come, perhaps even easily and swiftly, to the masses of the people in every land.”
How much of what Churchill foretold has indeed come to pass in the long Elizabethan era; but not all of it precisely as he envisaged. Prosperity has spread widely – but too many are still excluded from its fruits. Science and technology have certainly had “tales to tell”, though not all of them have been benign. Bleakest of all: on the 103rd day of the war in Ukraine, it is sad to reflect that some nations still refuse, brutally, to “let each other alone.”
On his retirement in 1955, the Queen wrote to Churchill that none of his successors would “be able to hold the place of my first prime minister to whom both my husband and I owe so much and for whose wise guidance during the early years of my reign I shall always be so profoundly grateful.”
This morning, Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, announced that he had received the requisite number of letters to trigger a confidence vote of Conservative MPs – to be held this evening – that will decide the fate of her fourteenth premier, Boris Johnson: a politician whose tribute act to Churchill may once have been mildly amusing, but is now a grotesque joke.
As all MPs do, most of them will, of course, be weighing up their own electoral interests and calculating the respective impact that Johnson’s survival or defenestration as Conservative party leader would have upon their own chances of keeping their seats at the next election. Yet there is so much more at stake than that.
The Jubilee weekend was above all a celebration, from the Queen’s skit with a CGI Paddington Bear to the foregrounding in the many festivities of youth, multiculturalism and the depth of British talent. It was a joyful act of thanksgiving, too: a festival of collective gratitude to a monarch who has served the nation and the Commonwealth for seven decades.
But it was also, in the gentlest possible sense, a form of farewell and a preparation for the future: an exercise in subtle rallying for what lies ahead, as well as a recognition of what has already been accomplished. As formidable as she is, the Queen is mortal; and her health, as attested by her absences over the weekend, is plainly failing.
As Prince William spoke on climate change at Saturday’s Platinum Jubilee concert, and declared that the need to protect the planet has “never been more urgent”, he connected the past 70 years to the perils of the next. As his father and the Duchess of Cornwall took to the stage – urging the crowd to cheer the Queen, resting 20 miles west in Windsor Castle – it was clear that we were listening to the man who will be King relatively soon.
The moment of his accession will be a time of overwhelming national grief. It will also be a time of trial both for the monarchy after a reign of more than 70 years, and for the institutional nexus whose core it remains (never forget that the Queen-in-Parliament is sovereign, not Parliament alone, as is commonly claimed).
In all likelihood, the Caroline age will begin at a time of immense economic difficulty; incomplete recovery from the pandemic; the geopolitical upheavals of which the Ukrainian conflict is only the beginning; intensifying pressure to take action on climate emergency; rising intergenerational tensions; a world struggling to keep pace with technological revolution; and a deepening sense that the international rules-based order is broken. None of these problems is intractable. But the new King will need advice, support and guidance of the highest calibre if he is to play his part with the supreme poise and cool judgement displayed for so long by his mother.
It is a simple statement of fact that Johnson is not up to this task – and the British people know it. That he should have been booed as he and his wife, Carrie, ascended the steps to St Paul’s Cathedral on Friday for the national thanksgiving service will have stung in two particular ways.
First: the generous and open-hearted mood over the weekend recalled the atmosphere of the 2012 Olympics, when Johnson was still hugely popular and one of the undoubted stars of the show – a gleeful mayoral ringmaster being cheered on by the crowds.
Ten years later, he is close to a pariah – divisive since the Brexit referendum, now made toxic by the unshakeable disgrace of partygate. In 2012, the whole point of Johnson was that he appealed to those who would never normally dream of voting Conservative; in 2022, the opinion polls show that he has become an electoral liability to his party. In the space of a decade, he has gone from Heineken to strychnine.
Second: no Tory PM can possibly take lightly the sound of jeers from the crowd at a ceremony to celebrate the achievements of the monarchy. The Conservative Party is many things, and has adapted with ruthless efficiency to the needs of the times. But it has always been the party of national institutions.
Indeed, Robert Peel, the founder of the modern party, defined “conservative principles” in 1838 as “the maintenance of the Peerage and the Monarchy – the continuance of the just powers and attributes of King, Lords, and Commons, in this country.” While today’s Tories are doubtless more ambivalent about the proper role of the peerage, they remain, by temperament, strongly attached to the institution of monarchy. It will have troubled a great many of them to see their party leader receiving that kind of reception outside that particular event.
And yet should we be surprised? This prime minister, after all, has had to apologise to the Queen at least twice: once, for misleading her over the unlawful prorogation of Parliament in 2019, and again over the Downing Street parties, two of which took place on the evening before Prince Philip’s funeral on 17 April 2021. The contrast between the carousing in Number 10 and the solitude of the Queen as she observed social distancing in the pews at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, could not have been more pointed. It showed that she understood far better than the PM the sacrifices her people were making every day in observing strict Covid regulations and that she and her grieving family did not share his evident sense that he was above the rules.
And now, for all his insistence that it is time to “move on”, that he has shown all necessary atonement, that the matter was closed by Sue Gray’s report, Johnson faces the formal judgement of his parliamentary party: an indignity at best, and a career-ending humiliation at worst. To avoid being sacked from the leadership outright – as Iain Duncan Smith was in 2003 – he requires 180 votes.
For what it is worth, the Conservative whips are “99 per cent certain” that he will pass that threshold comfortably. They do not believe that the rebellion against the PM has the critical mass, momentum or organisational strength that have characterised successful mutinies.
“Thatcher had Airey Neave plotting for her when she trounced Heath in 1975, and Boris had Gavin Williamson,” says one loyal minister. “There’s nobody like that today.” Nor, indeed, is there a clear frontrunner to take Johnson’s place – Rishi Sunak having lost pole position during the controversy over his family’s financial affairs; the Ukraine conflict having, until today, stayed Jeremy Hunt’s hand; and Liz Truss – how to put this delicately? – still regarded as more prominent than qualified.
Of all the potential contenders, the trade minister Penny Mordaunt has the most innovative things to say – for which, see her recent book Change: Britain After the Storm, co-authored with Chris Lewis (with whom, to the book’s benefit, she disagrees on a great deal). But she has much ground to make up if she is to stand a chance of succeeding Johnson.
Let us assume that the PM survives the vote. Such victories vary hugely in their aesthetic, textural and emotional character. In June 1995 – under a different set of rules – John Major invited his tormentors to “put up or shut up”, resigned the Tory leadership, and defeated John Redwood in the subsequent contest on 4 July by 218 votes to 89 (with eight abstentions and 12 spoiled ballots).
As Major writes in his memoirs, the aftermath of the contest was handled masterfully by his supporters: “Within moments College Green was swamped with around forty senior colleagues, primed and victorious, giving interviews and proclaiming a famous victory… It was all over.” Except, as Major knew full well, it was no such thing: “It was not really enough… I felt deflated. There was no elation. The leadership had been settled for the present Parliament, but the size of [Redwood’s] vote meant that there were many storms ahead.” The greatest of which, of course, was Hurricane Blair, which ended Major’s premiership by landslide in May 1997.
In December 2018, Theresa May won a confidence vote by 200 votes to 117. “I am pleased to have received the backing of my colleagues in tonight’s ballot,” she said. “Whilst I am grateful for that support, a significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I have listened to what they said.”
In private, however, May knew the game was up: even before the vote, she had felt compelled to promise that she would step down before the next general election. After the disaster of the European elections, she announced her resignation on 24 May, 2019.
Numerical victory, in other words, is not enough to save a leader whose authority is demonstrably in terminal decline. But what distinguishes Major and May from Johnson, is that they were creatures of conscience, alert to the dictates of honour and the promptings of embarrassment.
Johnson is a very different kind of politician. He obeys the rules when it suits him, and ignores them when it doesn’t. When caught out or reprimanded, the only question he asks is: can I get away with this? Though he speaks often of the “national interest” and the traditions of the Conservative Party, these are just words deployed in the round-the-clock service of his rampant narcissism.
Long before Sir Graham’s announcement today, he had let it be known that – in the event of a confidence vote – he would regard a majority of one as all the validation he needed, and a green light to carry on. In his interview last week with Mumsnet, he made very clear that he sees no reason whatsoever to quit: “I’m still here because we’ve got huge pressures economically, we’ve got to get on, you know, we’ve got the biggest war in Europe for 80 years, and we’ve got a massive agenda to deliver which I was elected to deliver.”
The last few words are the key to understanding how Johnson will handle the coming days. In private, I gather, he refers ever more frequently – and with mounting irritation – to the 80-seat majority that he secured in the 2019 general election. As far as Johnson is concerned, that mandate counts for a lot more than the caprice and jitteriness of MPs, many of whom (again, in his own mind) are only in the Commons because of him.
And this argument still has traction with a fair number of senior Tories. They oscillate between dismissing the PM as a busted flush whose political superpowers have finally drained away; and fretting that, even now, and in spite of the polls, he is still the best electoral option the party has and that he might, as he so often has, bounce back.
This agonised dithering, I have to say, is not the stuff of statesmanship. It reflects the extent to which the Tory Party has lost sight of its duty to the country; how fatally unmoored and introspective it has become, how narrow in its horizons. Naturally, politicians think of their own electoral interests: that preoccupation is what the business of power is founded upon. But a party that thinks only of being in office, of clinging on to its seats, of keeping the ministerial cars and the grace-and-favour homes – such a party cannot expect and will not receive any mercy from the voters.
Whatever happened to the Conservatives’ pride in themselves and their sense of historic duty to the nation? If this Jubilee weekend had a function beyond the celebration of a triumphant reign, it was to remind us all that there is more to the governance, cohesion and care of a nation than the reckless ego of one man; that the role of the constitutional monarch is more important than the destructive insistence of a single politician who has always wanted to be “World King.”
Etched into these four days of festivities was a solemn and urgent mission for the Tory tribe. The people of this country deserve better than this prime minister. And so, for that matter, does their Queen.