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BRIZE NORTON, ENGLAND – JUNE 18: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media as he arrives at RAF Brize Norton on June 18, 2022 in Brize Norton, England. Johnson is returning from a surprise meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Joe Giddens – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Happy birthday, Brexit

Happy birthday, Brexit

BRIZE NORTON, ENGLAND – JUNE 18: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks to media as he arrives at RAF Brize Norton on June 18, 2022 in Brize Norton, England. Johnson is returning from a surprise meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Photo by Joe Giddens – WPA Pool/Getty Images)

Six years on from the referendum, two by-elections present Boris Johnson with his next test. But they will not break the paralysis now gripping our democracy

Here’s a prediction: whatever happens in Thursday’s by-elections, the prime minister’s position will not be significantly imperilled. Assuming that things go badly for the Tories, there will indeed be rumblings, mutterings, briefings from the large number of Conservative MPs – at least 148, according to the confidence vote two weeks ago – who believe their party would be better off without Boris Johnson as its leader. 

Next weekend’s opinion polls might well indicate that his net approval rating is now a couple of points behind “rising damp”. A big beast or two from the Conservative past may be wheeled out to deliver the standard “in the name of God, go” routine. But Johnson will not go anywhere: you can count on it.

In Wakefield, it would be bitterly disappointing for Labour if its candidate, Simon Lightwood, were not able to overturn the 3,358 majority achieved in the West Yorkshire constituency in 2019 by Imran Ahmad Khan, the former Conservative MP jailed last month for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. 

In Tiverton and Honiton, meanwhile, the Lib Dems face a heavier lift as they campaign to seize the seat – which the disgraced Neil Parish held for the Tories in the last general election with a majority of 24,239. In December, of course, they pulled off just such a feat in North Shropshire, winning the seat vacated by Owen Paterson, who had secured a majority of 22,949 in 2019. But the Conservatives have been shamelessly massaging expectations for weeks, to encourage the (quite illogical) impression that anything short of disaster for the governing party will be a triumph for the PM.

To recap: it is only a fortnight since 41 per cent of Tory MPs voted to sack Johnson as their leader. Six days ago, the first deportation flight to Rwanda was thwarted by the European Court of Human Rights. Five days ago, Lord Geidt became the second Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests to resign on Johnson’s watch, citing the “impossible and odious” position in which he had been put by the PM. 

Worse, it is not yet clear whether Geidt will be replaced. Aren’t these ethics advisers rather high-maintenance, after all? Downing Street sources, meanwhile, are boasting about their readiness to break international law to get their way over the Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, and anything else that takes their fancy. What used to be declared a constitutional crisis is now just another day at the office.

And we are getting used to the drill. If Johnson were intercepted today by the police while committing armed robbery – sorry, while being “ambushed by cash” – Brandon Lewis (it is always Brandon Lewis) would be despatched at once to do the media rounds. The Northern Ireland Secretary would say that the PM “obviously” welcomed the arrest, had “made his position clear”, and was happy to “draw a line” under the incident so he could “focus like a laser” upon the issues that really mattered to the voters. Number 10 would simultaneously brief that the government intended to “invest in Morris dancing” – a Brexit opportunity if ever there was one – and to privatise hayfever. And on we would all go.

How have we reached this state of paralysis? Every previous prime minister in modern times would have been long gone by now, driven out by a combination of moral embarrassment and the electoral terror of his or her party. But the times, they have a-changed. 

For a start, the Conservative Party is not the brutal self-preservation machine it once was. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher won a third general election victory with a majority of 102 seats. Three years later, her cabinet and MPs brought her down without compunction.

It is true that there is no obvious successor of obvious stature waiting in the wings to replace Johnson. In 1990, the Tory Party had the pick of Michael Heseltine, Douglas Hurd, and John Major. In 2022, they have… well, let’s not go there for now.

And yet I do not think the absence of such a figure is the root of the problem. It is too easily forgotten how effectively, in the second half of 2019, Johnson and his still-loyal chief henchman, Dominic Cummings, purged the party of rebels, Remainers and even the merely awkward. In collaboration with Dougie Smith, the Tory fixer-in-chief, they fashioned a list of candidates for the general election that was overwhelmingly composed of loyalists. 

Two-and-a-half years on, the parliamentary party yielded by that contest is not naturally independent of spirit or ideologically diverse. It knows – how could it not? – that it has a problem with Johnson. But there is little coherence to its response. 

Indeed, it is quite misleading to speak of “the Tory rebels”, as if they were a broadly homogeneous group like the Brexiteers that led the charge against Theresa May. There is no binding principle to their mutiny: no coherent desire, say, to turn away from the nativist populism of the Rwanda policy towards social liberalism; or a particular economic doctrine – a yearning for fiscal conservatism, on the one hand, or for more public borrowing and radical investment, on the other. 

Drained of ideas and, in far too many cases, of courage, the Tory Party knows that it is led by the undead – by a vampiric regime, draining the body politic of blood – but is not yet prepared, in the words of one minister, “to do a Van Helsing” and finish the job.

If the motley group of MPs who want Johnson out of Number 10 have one thing in common, it is a tendency to procrastinate. First, they whispered that they would not take action until Sue Gray had published her interim report on partygate. Then, they decided to wait until after the local elections in May; then, Gray’s final report. 

But – of course – there could be no confidence vote until after the Platinum Jubilee, could there? And when that ballot was finally held on 6 June, the result – objectively dreadful for the PM – conspicuously failed to prompt a blizzard of resignations, articles calling upon Johnson to do the decent thing, and interviews on the Today programme in which a steady stream of senior figures piled on the pressure. Instead, the PM merrily declared the vote “decisive” – and watched with understandable glee as his party of helpless blue bunnies stood immobilised by the glare of his shamelessness.

In private, there are plenty of Tory MPs who will say that a double by-election disaster on Thursday would reanimate their plans for a coup – and, more specifically, prompt a rule change by the 1922 Committee to allow another confidence vote (the regulations, as presently set out, mean that Johnson is safe from such a ballot for 12 months). 

Then again, there are others who say it would be better to wait for the Commons privileges committee’s report, expected in the autumn, on the PM’s allegedly misleading statements to the House about partygate. And, after all, why rush? I am sure one could find Conservative MPs who think it would be strategically prudent to wait until next year’s Eurovision Song Contest; or a full solar eclipse; or pretty much anything else.

Small wonder, then, that some of Johnson’s allies are talking about a snap general election on 27 October. The prospects of this happening, I would say, are vanishingly small. But there is undoubted swagger in making such a threat: it throws the PM’s opponents – Tory and Labour – off balance, reminding them that they are not remotely ready for such a contest. Conservative MPs fret that they will lose their seats but that Johnson will cling on to power. Keir Starmer’s party, meanwhile, is not even close to being ready to go to the country.

The politics of the moment are huge: we have a law-breaking prime minister who seems committed to finding new ways every day to corrode and demean our democratic system. As the nation continues to recover from the pandemic, it is now in the grip of a full-blown cost-of-living crisis, compounded, though not initiated by the impact of the Ukraine conflict upon food and energy prices. This week’s rail strikes may only be the beginning of a wave of industrial action. If ever there was a time for statesmanship – not stunts, gimmicks and lies – this is it.

Instead, the two main parties have essentially shapeshifted into two ongoing, slow-motion leadership contests. One had only to read Priti Patel’s “most candid interview yet” with the Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey on Saturday to realise that, however long Johnson holds on, the race to replace him is already well underway. 

Jeremy Hunt and Tom Tugendhat make no secret of their ambitions. In her head, Liz Truss is already in her post-Falklands pomp. Nadhim Zahawi has what, in US politics, would be called an “exploratory committee”. On Saturday, Rishi Sunak – down but not out – posted a picture of himself at a chemist’s on Instagram, to remind us all that, before he became extremely rich and married an even richer person, he used to work in his mother’s pharmacy (the condom years before the non-dom years, so to speak).

On the Labour side, the positioning is no less brazen. Lisa Nandy yesterday denied reports that she had discussed her prospects as the next party leader with Starmer. But the fact that she, Wes Streeting, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and a few others are already being so openly sized up within their party in this way is instructive. 

Starmer is a decent, competent and resilient politician who has already done his party a huge favour in doing much to rid it of the stain of anti-Semitism. But he will never be prime minister. He ought to have a commanding lead in the polls by now, and he doesn’t. If not now, when?

Yes, it was a brutal blow to his prospects that he became Labour leader during lockdown and that so much of his first three years in the job were swallowed up by Covid. Yet – even if the pathogen had never struck these shores – I doubt that the public would have formed a different judgment of the former Director of Public Prosecutions. 

A technocrat to his fingertips, he believes absolutely in the saving power of competence and the superiority of forensic argument over emotional manipulation. And it is charming – admirable, even – that he thinks this way. It’s just that this form of politics is at least ten years out of date and is never coming back. The next Labour prime minister will be a politician able to surf the furious waves of algorithmic democracy but also to offer a sustainable vision of social justice for the 21st Century. Whoever that person may turn out to be, it will not be Starmer.

As Vladimir says in Waiting for Godot: “The air is full of our cries… But habit is a great deadener.” The greatest risk of all in the present political mix is the collective shrug; a weary, mostly subsconscious resignation to the decline of public life, and a corresponding cynicism about the prospects of anything better. Such resignation is the oxygen of leaders such as Johnson, Donald Trump and the freshly jubilant Marine Le Pen. They secure political success by promoting a distinctively modern brew of rage and indifference.

By coincidence, Thursday’s by-elections are being held on the sixth anniversary of the Brexit referendum. The path from 23 June, 2016 has been a wretched one: two prime ministers have fallen, yet the same party is in office. Save for its role in Ukraine, the United Kingdom is becoming a joke on the international stage. 

We have a morally bankrupt catastrophe of a prime minister who won’t resign, and a Leader of the Opposition who will never get elected. And – not for nothing – Brexit isn’t even done. So ask yourself this: six years on, how much control do you feel you have taken back?