Pond Life

Time for Tories to cut out their cancer

A fortnight before the 5 May local elections we experienced one of those increasingly rare moments of irony in our politics. The Metropolitan Police announced a stop to any further partygate fines until after the polls had closed, for fear of influencing their outcome. But then, in the days following, a Conservative MP resigned after being convicted of sexual assault on a minor; another was to appear in court after leaving the scene of an accident; a third resigned after being rumbled watching pornography in the House of Commons. The backdrop to it all was a row over a story in a Conservative-supporting newspaper, apparently leaked by a Conservative MP. It claimed Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, would perform her “Sharon Stone trick”, by crossing and uncrossing her legs in the Commons to distract the Prime Minister. And just before that little lot, yet another Conservative MP had the whip withdrawn over allegations of sexual harassment, cocaine use and borrowing large sums from a dodgy Russian. An impression was thus successfully created, with some justification, that the party of government was brimming with perverts, sex fiends, cokeheads and sleazeballs. If that didn’t put people off voting Tory, a few fines for going to illegal parties during lockdown – morally reprehensible as that was – were hardly going to make much difference.

There followed widespread discussion about the misogyny of male MPs, the subtext being that the worst offenders are Tories (one awaits statistical proof; some male Labour MPs are known to have sexual hang-ups). At least Conservatives are only following the example of their leader, the first prime minister one can call a liar and a criminal (as many people in the media and elsewhere now do) without attracting a defamation suit. Johnson may not have interfered with a fifteen-year-old boy, left the scene of a car crash (except metaphorically) or watched porn in the Commons, but his distant relationship with the truth and his blithe belief that breaking the law shouldn’t disbar him from being Her Majesty’s first minister, sends out a message to his demoralised followers: feel free to do what you bloody well like. And if you get away with it, good luck to you.

Most of those who had a vote on 5 May had long since settled that if they were going to exercise it at all, they would do so for a party other than the Conservatives. Polling showed a nosedive in the party’s fortunes over the winter, as the news of Johnson’s contempt for the anti-covid regulations he himself had enforced penetrated public consciousness. The trouble was everyone seemed to have a dog in that fight; everyone had their own story of sacrifice, loss, hardship or suffering during the lockdowns, caused by their decency in obeying the law while the Prime Minister and his cronies were disobeying it. As has been much remarked, few supposedly shocking political issues travel far beyond Westminster, but Number 10’s culture of partying under Johnson has gone right to the farthest extremes of the country. Every sentient adult knows about it, and most are disgusted.

Many Tory Brexiteers might have wanted Johnson initially, but would be glad to have shot of him now he’s “got Brexit done”

In the days before the local elections, panic started to set in. Oliver Dowden, the Conservative party chairman, challenged the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats to come clean about what appeared to be an electoral pact between them: agreeing to not both field candidates in many seats where an undivided vote could defeat the Conservatives. Dowden would have served himself and his party better had he examined why there was such enthusiasm for a pact between in the first place – the uniquely bad public perceptions of his own party that had led Labour and the Lib Dems to tap the national desire to be rid of Johnson. Huge numbers were cited when predicting how many seats the party might lose, allowing a spurious victory to be claimed when the losses weren’t quite as grievous (as is usually the case). But here we are, and it’s all rather pointless. The government is paralysed and will remain so until Johnson is removed. The local elections were but a diversion, rather like someone with cancer who gets an unrelated headache. The headache passes, but the cancer remains.

Just before the elections, rumours swirled around that any number of Conservative MPs had had enough of Johnson; the final straw being his shrugging off of the Fixed Penalty Notice for attending an illegal party. There was briefing that his culpability would not stop with one notice: he might receive two or three more, which would put him in an impossible position. Some Tory MPs were shocked that he hadn’t resigned, as it was imagined any of his predecessors would have done. But despite the damage they all knew this was doing, few of them – for the same reasons as the London Met – voiced their concerns before the local elections, for fear of producing an even worse outcome for the Conservative Party.

One or two MPs jumped the gun, notably Steve Baker who, we were reminded, had a hand in the demise of both David Cameron and Theresa May. Baker was a leading Brexiteer and therefore unusual among Johnson’s public critics. Only bitter and twisted remainers are supposed to be after his blood on the grounds he’s deemed ideologically suspect. This is not remotely true. Many Tory Brexiteers might have wanted Johnson initially, but would be glad to have shot of him now he’s “got Brexit done”. If you can actually say Brexit’s done, given the continuing problems with the Northern Ireland protocol, which Johnson appeared not to have read before agreeing to it.

In fact, Brexit now has nothing to do with many MPs’ feelings about Johnson. Rather, it’s about hosing down the vast numbers of angry constituents who protest they won’t be voting Tory again while he is in charge. Were they to carry out their threat, a few dozen Tory MPs would not return to Westminster after the next election. That thought is concentrating minds, even in safe seats: for the ultimate horror for your average Tory is a Labour/SNP coalition, the price of which is another referendum on independence.

Some ministers are exhausted trying to defend the indefensible, while many MPs have already given up, telling irate constituents they can’t even begin to defend him. When Sue Gray’s report is finally published, things will get far worse for Johnson – if he lasts that long. And the old line trotted out in his defence about him being a “winner” is something that can now be assessed anew after the local election results. As the campaign drew to a close there were attempts to put some fight back into the party. Notably, one national newspaper tried to convince Britain that Keir Starmer drinking beer in a regional Labour party office was the moral equivalent of a series of pre-planned booze-soaked parties in Downing Street.

The desperation was clear even then. Johnson is running out of road. For all our faults, we remain a fundamentally decent people. We don’t like liars and hypocrites. And we will need to live a long time to see another exemplar of those vices on quite this scale leading our country again.

Simon Heffer is a historian, columnist for the Telegraph and Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham

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