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If only the Tory plotters had waited until this week’s two by-election results to unseat Boris Johnson.
After the Conservatives crashed and burned in both, I’m pretty sure getting the requisite 180 Tory MPs to vote against him in a confidence vote would have been a piece of cake.
But these days the Tories can’t even mount a proper coup, never mind run the country.
Of course, there will not be another immediate confidence vote in response to the by-election defeats. The Tory Party rules don’t allow it (there is meant to be a year between leadership challenges) and even the most rabid Tory rebels realise you can’t keep on having confidence votes in the Prime Minister every time yet another scandal or setback swirls around him (current frequency: at least one a week).
So Johnson limps on into the summer — weak, bloodied, aimless, diminished, discredited. There will be more supposedly ‘watershed’ speeches, designed to relaunch his administration, pregnant with bluster and hyperbole, devoid of policy that would make a difference.
After the Conservatives crashed and burned in both, I’m pretty sure getting the requisite 180 Tory MPs to vote against him in a confidence vote would have been a piece of cake
Everything will be ‘world-beating’, even as perceptions of Britain’s decline become part of the international lexicon once more.
The more he boasts of our economic prowess, the more growth grinds to a halt. The more he talks about levelling up the North and Midlands with the South, the wider the gap gets.
By September, nothing will have changed. Indeed, things will likely have got worse. Summer holidays will have been disrupted by industrial action. We could easily be in recession (though that will likely be true of America and Europe, too). The cost of living crisis will be worse as inflation peaks at more than 11 per cent. As a stagflation nation, we will be in a very grumpy mood.
It will be a rough old Tory Party conference in the first week of October and demands for a rule change to allow another confidence vote in Johnson will grow when Parliament returns the week after. The new 1922 Committee — the shop stewards of Tory MPs — about to be elected is likely to look kindly on such a proposition by then.
If there is another vote in the autumn, Johnson will lose it. The by-elections will still be in Tory MPs’ minds.
To lose Red Wall Wakefield in the North to Labour and hitherto safe Tory Tiverton and Honiton in the South West to the Liberals Democrats is the Tories’ worst nightmare.
They have no hope of winning the next election if Labour is retaking the Red Wall even as the Tories’ southern Blue Wall is crumbling to the Lib Dems.
On every important issue that is regarded as Tory territory, in the sense that voters have generally thought the Tories better than Labour at handling it, the Johnson government is sinking
Even worse for the Conservatives, significant anti-Tory tactical voting was involved. Labour lost its deposit in Tiverton even though it came second there in the 2019 general election.
Clearly, Labour voters switched to the Lib Dems as most likely to unseat the Tories.
In Wakefield the Lib Dems came seventh with barely 500 votes. Again, clearly, Lib Dems voted for the party most likely to oust the Tories, in this case Labour.
The petty tribalisms of the British Left usually stop such tactical voting having much of an influence in general elections. But Labour, Lib Dems and Greens now make up about 60 per cent of the English electorate. If they were to come to some sort of working arrangement before the next election it would be curtains for the Tories.
Of course, you can read too much into by-elections, which are a popular political spectator sport, causing short-term ructions but often of little long-term significance.
And let us not forget these two by-elections were provoked by sleaze scandals involving the disgraced sitting members.
The hapless John Major was the last prime minister to lose two by-elections in one night, in 1991 — but he went on to win the 1992 General Election.
The Labour swing in Wakefield was no higher than the last time Labour beat the Tories in a by-election, in Corby a decade ago. But the Tories went on to win the 2015 General Election.
The swing to the Lib Dems in Tiverton was astonishing. But modern history is speckled with astonishing Lib Dem by-election swings.
The more he boasts of our economic prowess, the more growth grinds to a halt. The more he talks about levelling up the North and Midlands with the South, the wider the gap gets, writes Andrew Neil
Tiverton was only the fourth biggest in living memory, less than Sutton and Cheam (1972), Christchurch (1993) and North Shropshire (2021). They rarely translate into general election success and when they do, the Lib Dems then find themselves in some sort of formal or informal coalition which destroys them for a generation.
But Thursday’s results are important nevertheless because they confirm the Tories are right to be worried about a pincer movement on their Red and Blue Walls — a double whammy all the more dangerous if there is tactical voting at the next election.
They also underline how precarious Johnson’s position remains. As they sometimes say north of the border, more than ever ‘his jaikit is hingin’ by a shoogly peg’ (translation: his jacket is on a loose coat hook, meaning: his job is insecure).
Yesterday’s pre-dawn resignation by Tory Party chairman Oliver Dowden might seem only a pin-prick to a Prime Minister galavanting thousands of miles away in Rwanda while his position erodes further back home.
But Dowden is the first Cabinet minister to quit, implicitly, because of Partygate, and when he writes that someone had ‘to take responsibility’, most Tory loyalists will conclude that the cause of the defeats did not lie with him but with his boss.
Dowden’s resignation letter is a signal that loyal Tories can no longer be loyal to the party and to Johnson — indeed, he signs off by pledging loyalty to the party but notably not to its leader.
His resignation will not immediately trigger more Cabinet resignations. He did not coordinate his action with any colleagues (he didn’t even warn them in advance). But that could change by the autumn.
Michael Howard’s call, only a few hours after Dowden’s resignation, for Johnson to stand down and for Cabinet ministers to ‘consider their positions’ is a huge straw in the wind.
When a former Tory leader, a serious Brexiteer from the Right of the party not given to extravagant gestures, calls on a sitting Tory Prime Minister to resign then many will conclude that it is only a matter of time before the game is up for Johnson.
But there are deeper forces at work, more significant than here today, gone tomorrow by-elections and the musings of Tory grandees.
On every important issue that is regarded as Tory territory, in the sense that voters have generally thought the Tories better than Labour at handling it, the Johnson government is sinking.
On immigration, which was key to Johnson winning the Brexit referendum and the 2019 election, the latest YouGov poll shows 76 per cent of voters think he’s handling it badly, only 13 per cent think he’s doing well.
On crime, the ratio of badly to well is 59 per cent to 24 per cent, on tax 67 per cent to 20 per cent, the economy 72 per cent to 18 per cent and on inflation an astonishing if not surprising 76 per cent to 12 per cent.
These are devastating figures for the Prime Minister and it’s not clear to me that he can do much, if anything, about them.
He doesn’t even have the authority or popularity to stand up to the rail unions, yet if they come anywhere near winning the current industrial dispute Johnson’s economic policy, such as it is, will be in tatters.
Johnson remains the country’s biggest vote generator. But rather than rallying voters to the Tory cause, which was once his strength, he now unwittingly motivates and marshals millions to join the anti-Tory cause.
If that is still the case come the autumn, then I expect Tory MPs will screw their courage to the sticking place and oust him. Who will succeed him is anybody’s guess and the lack of an obvious successor has helped keep him in his job so far.
However, such is the souring of the Tory mood against the Prime Minister that, when asked who would be better, the answer, increasingly, is ‘just about anyone’.