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A Major intervention?

A Major intervention?

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Former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major has launched a scathing attack on Boris Johnson over Partygate. He is known to be a critic of the prime minister, so will it make any difference?


Transcript
Nimo Omer, narrating:

Hi, I’m Nimo, and this is the Sensemaker. 

One story, everyday, to make sense of the world.

Today, a former Conservative prime minister has publicly attacked Boris Johnson over Partygate. 

Will it make any difference? 

***

“Trust in politics is at a low ebb, eroded by foolish behaviour, leaving a sense of unease about how our politics is being conducted. Too often, ministers have been evasive, and the truth has been optional.”

John Major, IfG

On Thursday, former prime minister Sir John Major gave a speech at the Institute for Government. 

For close to 30 minutes he talked mostly about confidence in government – and what Boris Johnson and his ministers have done to erode it in recent weeks and months. 

It’s worth looking in detail at what he said, because it’s some of the most forthright criticism we’ve seen of Boris Johnson, from someone within his party. 

Sir John Major said the government’s evasiveness and lies about what happened at Number 10 could have far-reaching consequences for people’s trust in their elected officials:

“If trust in the word of our leaders in Parliament is lost – then trust in government will be lost too. At No10, the prime minister and officials broke lockdown laws. Brazen excuses were dreamed up. Day after day the public was asked to believe the unbelievable. Ministers were sent out to defend the indefensible – making themselves look gullible or foolish.”

John Major, IfG

He went on:

“Collectively, this has made the Government look distinctly shifty, which has consequences that go far beyond political unpopularity. No government can function properly if its every word is treated with suspicion.”

John Major IfG

Sir John Major said Boris Johnson’s behaviour had damaged Britain globally too. Sky’s Beth Rigby put that point to the prime minister, whilst he was on a trip to Poland:

Beth Rigby: “I have a final, no, I have to ask you about John Major prime minister, because John Major said that you’ve shredded diplomacy, so…” 


Boris Johnson: “I think, I think that, that is demonstrably untrue”

John Major

His disdain for Boris Johnson has been apparent for a while. 

He’s been a vocal critic of Brexit, the prime minister’s decision to cut a parliamentary session short and the handling of sleaze allegations against a Tory MP, but even by his standards these were strong words. 

***

Sir John Major said that if Boris Johnson had lied to parliament about Number 10 parties, he should resign, and said that Conservative MPs have a “duty” to shore up the country’s democratic principles. 

After all, they are the only ones with the power to remove their leader from office at the moment.

The subtext of his speech was this: Tory MPs should take a long, hard look at themselves – and consider whether they should move against him.

In an interview with the Independent,  John Major was even clearer: sometimes MPs have to, quote, “put country before party”, he said.

So far 15 Conservative MPs have made public calls for Boris Johnson to go. 

Will Sir John Major’s speech prick the conscience of a few more? 

***

John Major’s government was no stranger to scandal. In the early 90s it was beset by revelations about affairs and paid lobbying by MPs. 

And he also knows what it’s like to face criticism from his predecessor: 

Narrator: “The woman he replaced, Margaret Thatcher, became his severest critic.”

John Major: “In retrospect I suppose I can now say I think her behaviour was intolerable.”

Narrator: “Time and again his leadership was questioned.”

Edwina Currie: “John Major was one of the nicest people ever to walk to the hallowed halls of Westminster and just the wrong person ever to be prime minister.”

The Major Years, 1999

But despite that he survived for seven years until he was swept from power by Tony Blair’s New Labour landslide in 1997, which just shows how difficult it is to convince the Conservative Party to remove its leader.

***

Some commentators don’t think Sir John Major’s attack on Boris Johnson will have much of an impact.

“This is the type of speech I think that will make a big difference to pretty much nobody at all. If you don’t like Boris Johnson, you’ll look at what John major has said and said, fantastic. Completely agree with him. And if you do like Boris Johnson, then this will just wash over you.”

Charlotte Ivers, Times Radio

Boris Johnson might have been economical with the truth, he might even have broken the law, but for some Conservative MPs he’s the man who won them their seats. 

Their bar for removing him is much higher, and a former Tory leader who is known to be critical of the prime minister doesn’t push them over it.

***

Things are settling down for the prime minister, at least for now.

Sue Gray’s full report and the results of the Met Police investigation into parties at Downing Street are yet to come. 

That is the next moment of danger for Boris Johnson, not the intervention of a former leader.

John Major’s speech made important points about democracy, trust and standards in public life. 

But the reality is that Conservative MPs appear to be thinking more about pragmatism than principles. 

Those who oppose Boris Johnson don’t want to move against him too early, fail to get the numbers to win a confidence vote against him and therefore cement his position in Downing Street for the foreseeable future.

Those who are wavering will be considering their political futures. 

If Boris Johnson manages, somehow, to cling on, their loyalty might be rewarded. 

Sir John Major may have focussed some Tory minds, but not enough to overcome the challenges of removing a Conservative prime minister.

Today’s story was written and produced by Ella Hill.


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