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A Tortoise File

Shadow whipping: the men who saved Boris

Political wisdom says Ukraine has saved Boris Johnson’s skin. But the really successful operation to rescue the prime minister started long before Russia’s war, and much closer to home

Shadow whipping: the men who saved Boris

First published
Monday 14 March 2022

Last updated
Monday 14 March 2022

Why this story?

Two months ago, the mainstream view at Westminster was that Boris Johnson was finished. That’s no longer the assumption. Now, the opinion-makers say, the war in Ukraine has made the prime minister so bullet-proof that he can even survive the fixed-penalty fine for breaking his own Covid rules which might land on his desk soon. 

Ukraine has certainly helped Boris Johnson’s position. But if the political weather has changed it’s because people close to him have changed it, not because a chill wind has blown in from the east. After a week in mid-January when everything seemed lost, and the management of the Conservative party which is meant to protect its leader seemed terminally ineffective, an operation was put in place to save him – a shadow whipping operation as it became known. It deployed some of the usual tactics of the Whips, arm-twisting and threats about future career prospects, but it went further. It rewarded outspoken disloyalty towards the prime minister from backbench MPs with jobs and promises of funding. And it persuaded enough MPs to change their minds about a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson to remove the immediate threat to him. 

The shadow whipping operation at Westminster is something new, and it marks a shift in British politics. It’s only a set of conventions, not formal rules, which have governed how far a prime minister would go in using the power of political patronage for his own advantage. But now those conventions have been breached, where do the limits lie on Number 10’s ability to dispense favours in return for loyalty?