It is said that all political careers end in failure.
Who, for instance, in the early to mid-1980s would have predicted that the Conservative Party would, in a few years’ time, cold-bloodedly knife their former heroine Margaret Thatcher in the back?
I was reminded of this as Boris Johnson was reported to have “toured the members’ tearoom” following his “mea culpa” speech before Prime Minister’s Questions last week.
This tearoom tour, unusual for the prime minister, was seen as an attempt to bolster support among his backbenchers. The last time I can recall this happening was when Mrs Thatcher did exactly the same thing while under pressure to resign. It didn’t help her then, and it won’t help Boris now.
I have seldom experienced a time when Westminster politics was so fluid and fast-moving. As I write this, Boris Johnson is still prime minister. Yet, in a few days or even hours, he may be gone. The one certainty, however, is that while he may still be in post this morning, his departure is only postponed, not cancelled.
Not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’
Predicting a political resignation can be a chancy affair. I recall writing a newspaper column when former Scottish Conservative Party leader David McLetchie was in trouble for taxi expense claims, and there were calls from the SNP and others for him to go.
I wrote that the amount of money being disputed was relatively small, that it was not a resignation matter, and that Mr McLetchie should not and would not resign. He resigned the next day.
However, I feel no qualms about making this prediction today. It is not now a matter of if Boris Johnson will resign as prime minister, but when. The drip-drip of revelations over the past weeks have mortally wounded him, and he is now clinging on to power by his fingertips. If he does not go of his own volition, the investigation by senior civil servant Sue Gray will surely seal his fate.
The list of events into which Sue Gray is being asked to inquire extends almost daily”
Many backbench Conservative members are simply waiting for her report before joining the execution squad already being assembled. As an aside, I have no doubt that this firing squad will have Scottish Conservative MSPs, MPs and ordinary party members at its head, given the comments directed at Douglas Ross by some of his English so-called colleagues last week.
Is an intervention on the cards?
The list of events into which Ms Gray is being asked to inquire extends almost daily, and while Mr Johnson may not have attended all of them, they were all held in his office or garden, by staff under his control. The laissez-faire culture which allowed all of these parties, gatherings, leaving dos and quizzes to take place at Number 10 while the rest of us were under lockdown came from the top and, as the sign on US president Harry S Truman’s desk stated, “The Buck Stops Here”.
Other than waiting for Sue Gray’s report, is there anything else which might hasten the PM’s departure? Well, going back to Margaret Thatcher, she like Boris was hanging on by her fingernails until her former chancellor Geoffrey Howe made his famously devastating speech against her in the Commons, excoriating both her character and policies. Within days, she was gone.
Perhaps though, even an intervention such as that would be as water off a duck’s back to our present prime minister.
Almost certainly, it will take the intervention of the fabled “men in grey suits”, the Tory grandees, to tell the prime minister that the game is up and it is time to go. In matters of this sort, the Tories are notoriously ruthless.
Johnson’s shine has worn off
Whether we like it or not, the UK Conservative Party is the most effective and efficient organisation in the Western world at winning elections. The party loves someone who can deliver electoral victories, and that is what Boris Johnson once was.
If he does sit tight, refusing to resign, and manages to survive the next week or two, the local government elections in May will demonstrate the electoral damage his leadership has done to his party. Almost certainly, the Conservatives will lose ground to Labour across England, and Johnson’s fate will be sealed.
The artificial carapace he has honed over the years of a bumbling but likable winner has worn off, and the public now see him for what he really is – an old-Etonian self-serving, libidinous egocentric with an unwavering sense of self-entitlement.
The Conservative Party membership also now see it, and so does the party leadership. The men in grey suits will be paying him a visit very soon.
Campbell Gunn is a retired political editor who served as special adviser to two first ministers of Scotland, and a Munro compleatist