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The Tail Wags ‘Big Dog’: Johnson Under Enormous Pressure From MPs

Roar Editor Fintan Hogan on the weakness of Boris Johnson’s premiership following the no confidence vote on Monday night.

Almost five months after the first suggestions of a no confidence vote in Boris Johnson were mooted, the fifty-sixth and final letter of no confidence from Tory MPs required to trigger a vote was finally received on Sunday June 5. Johnson won the subsequent confidence ballot 211-148 to keep his post but recorded a diminutive victory among even his own partisan allies. Facile and devoid of substance, the ‘patriotic hologram’ is now a concept familiar to watchers of both the Jubilee procession and the Johnson premiership. It may be wise to hope that they are equally short-lived.

And yet ‘Operation Save Big Dog’ (the plan to keep Johnson’s job) limps on. While he narrowly holds the confidence of his party, he continues to fail to inspire any among the watching public. SNP leader Ian Blackford’s analogy of Monty Python’s ‘black knight’ aptly fits the floundering Johnson, who refuses to concede that the recent sequence of bad press has been anything more than a ‘flesh wound’. The polls suggest otherwise. As of June 2, his favourability rating dropped to 24%, the lowest ebb since the 22% he received in January as ‘Partygate’ revelations began to mount. And yet this is expected to fall still further with his poor performance in the confidence vote this week.

59% approval among his own MPs is the lowest support enjoyed by any Tory PM since Margaret Thatcher’s 57% support in 1990. The Iron Lady rusted away within two days. John Major soldiered on with only 66% support in 1995 before being crushed in a landslide election loss two years later to a fresh-faced centrist Labour movement under Tony Blair. Indeed, even the robotic Theresa May shut down just five months after surviving the no confidence vote that Boris Johnson himself propagated; despite her approval being 4% higher than the score Johnson achieved this week.

She did seem to enjoy the sweet irony of Monday night. Apparently (while no photographers caught her), May descended on the vote in a black dress, gold necklace and sequin-encrusted high heels. Like the best dressed at a funeral, the No Confidence Dress was more coherent in its message than any Number 10 spin. As this author stated in January, ‘the Tory front bench is an uncomfortable place for many to sit’; the former leader may be enjoying exacting revenge more than she’d like to let on.

The 1922 Committee, responsible for internal leadership matters in the Conservative Party, is apparently now looking at changing the rules of no confidence motions. Under current regulation Johnson cannot face another ballot in the next 12 months, but some Conservatives are suggesting that this inhibition faces imminent revision. Tory MPs Tobias Ellwood and Bob Neill have thus succinctly called the vote a “stay of execution” and “pyric victory” for Johnson. All four previous Tory leaders who have faced no confidence or leadership votes have been out of office within the next two years, despite only one successful motion against them. The Conservatives are expected to lose two by-elections on June 23. Johnson’s prospects continue to look bleak.

To stave off another coup d’état, Johnson has no choice but to ‘run from the booing’ – as he was forced to do during a Jubilee event at St Paul’s Cathedral. He desperately needs to ensure the ongoing support of all prominent Cabinet ministers to retain even a façade of credible leadership. Only 190 MPs came out prior to the leadership vote in public endorsement of his premiership. This clearly shows the fear of many, especially in swing seats, that support for Johnson is a nail in their coffin at the next election.

We can expect more bills that bend to public pressure like the £15 billion cost-of-living debt relief package, introduced in part to alleviate political pressure. There has been little ideological coherence to this government so far. This is partly understandable since the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted every facet of life for well over a year. And yet it is also self-inflicted, a hallmark of an election campaign in 2019 run on ‘getting Brexit done’, cultural anti-wokeness and simply not being Jeremy Corbyn.

The Monday Night Rebels can effectively strangle the Johnson agenda should they chose to do so. Far from the niche circle of the ‘pork pie plot’, 148 members attempting to depose their leader en masse will embolden the critics and weaken the leverage of the whips. Backbenchers are already applying pressure on Johnson to slash taxes, further pushing up public borrowing and debt (not very conservative).

People may generally be quick to forget, but with an extensive list of blunders and crises including: illegal prorogation, Cummings’ Barnard Castle trip, the Downing Street flat refurbishment, cronyism and waste in the purchase of PPE, the Hancock affair, Owen Paterson’s sleaze, Brexit border mismanagement, Partygate, refugee removal to Rwanda, the cost-of-living crisis, breaking the law as a sitting PM, lying to Parliament and now the failing support of his own MPs, I would like to ask what exactly is Johnson hoping that people remember at the next election? Kier Starmer having a pint?

For all his ‘back to business’ bluster, Johnson still fronts a party with looming by-elections, an unpopular leader and a propensity for regicide. Beware the vultures Mr Johnson. They don’t fly very far away.

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