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Boris in the Last Chance Saloon Again
John O'Sullivan • 07 Jun, 2022 • 4 Min Read
You can't be top dog forever.
Boris Johnson survived a vote of no confidence among Tory MPs by 211 to 148 votes earlier tonight and thus remains Leader of the Conservative party and Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. His share of the total vote amounts to fifty-nine per cent of the Tory Party in Parliament—a decisive victory in most circumstances—and the circumstances in this case are quite favorable to Boris. Under the party’s leadership rules, no further vote of no confidence can be lodged against him for another year.
On paper, therefore, Johnson is safe from a challenge until the middle of 2023, which will be eighteen months before Britain’s next general election has to be held. And the nearer the election, the more nervous MPs become about changing their party leader—or, worse, trying to change him and failing.
Yet immediately after the result was announced, most commentators and a good many anti-Johnson Tory rebels were declaring their belief that Johnson had simply not done well enough, would continue to face additional unrest, and was still at risk of being ousted as party leader well before a general election.
Of course, it was because the rebellion against Johnson had been plotted, nurtured, and pushed to last night’s no-confidence vote by more or less the same coalition of anti-Johnson Tories and media commentators that many Tory MPs had rallied to his support despite their serious misgivings about the apparently aimless drift of his administration.
The so-called “Partygate” mini-scandal had played out over months. Photographs showing Johnson and civil servants sharing a drink in Downing Street—apparently taken by someone inside—appeared on the front pages in a calculated succession of leaks about boozy government office parties during the Covid lockdown. Johnson was accused of breaking the rules he imposed on the whole country, and then of lying when he denied the accusations. An official report found that he had been present at only one party—a surprise birthday party for him that had interrupted a business meeting—but that partial exoneration only led to further charges of a “cover-up.”
This whole farrago of suspicion and accusation went on for all of 2022. With its relentless depiction of Johnson as a “serial liar,” it undoubtedly weakened him. At the same time it deeply angered Johnson loyalists who declared that the media must not be allowed to mount a “coup” against a democratically elected prime minister. It also caused bitter conflicts between Tory rebels and loyalists at Westminster. And it may even have won Johnson some support from Tory backbenchers otherwise disappointed by his record who felt that he didn’t deserve to fall before this campaign of personal destruction.
For the main threat to Johnson in last night’s vote is that the 148 dissidents who voted against him came from all wings of the Tory party, including some he thought he could rely on—Brexiteers, Tory traditionalists, free-market supporters, small business people, and the rest. They see a drift to statist and costly government programs, a failure to effectively oppose the take-over of important British institutions such as the British Museum and the National Trust by woke left-wing radicals, a taste for grandiose utopian enterprises such as Net-Zero which will impose huge energy costs on ordinary citizens until they have a fatal crash with reality, neither an ability nor an interest in controlling government spending, the breaking of explicit promises to control immigration, and the imposition of higher taxes in contravention of manifesto pledges.
It's a serious indictment. A former senior colleague, Lord (David) Frost, who had earlier resigned from Johnson’s cabinet because of the government’s “direction of travel,” tweeted in response to last night’s vote:
If the PM is to save his premiership and his government he should now take a different course - bring taxes down straightaway to tackle the cost of living crisis, take on public service reform, and establish an affordable and reliable energy policy for the long term.
Moreover, Johnson needs to embark on this conservative turn more or less immediately. His opponents are hoping that the Tories will lose two special by-elections coming up in a few weeks. Those elections are in safe Tory seats, and if the current opinion polls are correct, they will fall to the Opposition—and undoubtely set off a new round of demands for Boris’s departure by the media and internal Tory dissidents.
The smart money says he’ll go. So he will he probably stay. Here are a few random reasons why:
Given the shellacking that Boris and the Tories have received this year, the opinion polls asking “which party will you support in the next election” aren’t that bad. The Tories are a mere four points behind Labour. Two-and-a-half years before an election need be called, that’s actually a favorable position—at least it is if he adopts policies that succeed.
Boris is offering extraordinary international leadership in the Ukraine crisis. Not only does that justify Brexit because it shows what Britain freed from E.U. control can achieve independently, but also most Brits strongly support Ukraine and are proud of what Boris is doing. That will influence their opinion of him on domestic issues too.
He’s still popular with the Tory faithful in the constituencies—unlike Theresa May in 2019, whose weak Brexit approach caused Tory associations to pass votes of no confidence in her and Tory voters to flee to Nigel Farage’s party in the European elections. And Boris's high standing with Tory activists is important to MPs because they're the people who will choose candidates next time.
Margaret Thatcher resigned as Tory leader because her cabinet colleagues broke her will to fight when—in a long night of betrayals--one after another told her that she couldn’t win the next round of the leadership election. Boris’s will has not been broken or even much bruised by the opposition of colleagues. And it's hard to dispatch a prime minister who is absolutely determined to stay on.
The final reason is also the reason he won last night: Boris is a synonym for Brexit. He’s the reason why Brexit finally happened, and Brexit is the reason why the Remainers in the Tory party and in the wider political and media establishment hate Boris. They hope and believe that if they can get rid of Boris, they can reverse Brexit in time. And because the Leavers in the Tory party also believe that if Boris goes then Brexit may go as well, they therefore turned out to vote for him one last time.
One last time? Probably. Unless he delivers the other policies to make a post-Brexit Britain succeed too, he’ll bring down Brexit all by himself. In the end, everybody finally runs out of chances at the Last Chance Saloon.
John O'Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review, editor of Australia's Quadrant, founding editor of The Pipeline, and President of the Danube Institute. He has served in the past as associate editor of the London Times, editorial and op-ed editor for Canada's National Post, and special adviser to Margaret Thatcher. He is the author of The President, the Pope and the Prime Minister: Three Who Changed the World.