Conservative MPs find themselves in an awful dilemma. It’s a puzzle of their own making, of course. It was they who helped to elevate Boris Johnson to the Premiership in the first place, though they did so in desperation and as something of a last resort. But now they face the consequences of their own actions: having put him in No 10, they now have to merge their fates and reputation with his, or somehow lever him out again.
They might have learned, in this respect, from Labour’s disastrous experiment between 2015 and 2020: you can indulge your instincts and fly off the handle all you want, and it might even gain you some short-term popularity (as it did for Labour in the brief Corbynite spring and summer of 2017), but what you really know in your heart about your leader is still true.
Conservative MPs should also consider the real dilemma they are in – and the peril to their own jobs. This is not really reflected in voting intention figures, poor predictors of electoral outcomes in the middle of a Parliament. The real damage is being done internally, under the surface. Voters are beginning to see them as arrogant, out-of-touch, hypocritical and venal. This is a similar mix of adjectives that did for the Major government, but with an added twist: if they accept it and try to live with it, that’s a poisonous cocktail for key voter demographics.
Think about older, socially-conservative voters in the traditionally Labour seats Johnson won from them last time. What do they believe in? Fitting in. Following the rules. Obeying the law. What do they hate? Scroungers, bludgers and the London ‘elites’ who laugh at them.
The number one thing that you must never do, if you are to retain your relationship with these people, is to break the rules and the law. When you’re supposed to be working for the taxpayer. In London. While having a laugh. ‘Partygate’ has been the electoral equivalent of taking an axe to the thread tying Johnson and his party to the electorate. Tories need to throw these voters a line, right away.
Neither will this go down well in the more established part of the Tories’ electoral alliance: richer southern liberals, frightened of Corbynism and tired of Brexit, who stuck with them through thick and thin (and gritted teeth) in 2019. They mostly had to stare at Zoom in their spare room for a year, wrecking not only their backs but their sense of well-being. They didn’t get to booze it up in the office.
All that said, Tory MPs are indeed in a bind. This is for two reasons: their own core supporters are not quite yet perhaps ready to give up on the Boris Balloon; and they don’t really know if they want to spectacularly blow it up. YouGov figures show that 59% of Tory members still support Boris; just 34% think he should go. In the ‘Red Wall’ seats, the Tories’ polling numbers seem fairly similar whether they’re led by Johnson or by Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor.
The Conservatives are all out of a real strategy. There are several available, but they unite neither Conservative MPs nor their electoral coalition of 2019. Difficult choices abound. Should they bulldoze planning regulations aside and achieve a real housing lift-off, akin to the one they engineered in the 1930s and 1950s? Or should they listen to their rural and suburban voters who want to keep their schools and hospitals for themselves? Should they slash taxes and let growth take the strain, or stick to their higher tax gambit to pay for better elderly and social care? How ‘green’ should they be: should they u-turn away from environmentalism, or deepen their commitment to clean energy and travel?
In the midst of this dilemma, it is also really unclear that potential candidates for the leadership really have any of their own ideas anyway. Is Sunak really a small-state Thatcherite, or is that just the influence of the Treasury on an image-merchant? Is Liz Truss truly on the right, or is she a problem-solver and negotiator posing as a tough nut to attract MPs’ votes in any leadership contest? She did contribute to Britannia Unchained, one of the right’s Bibles, in 2012: and her high-profile trade deals have done her no harm with members. But her positions on other issues give the impression of a cardboard cut-out Conservative, rather than a true believer.
Looking beyond that, the Tories also know that their leadership contests tend to throw up unexpected results: Alec Douglas-Home and not Rab Butler, John Major and not Michael Heseltine, Iain Duncan-Smith and not Michael Portillo. Who really knows how a Nadhim Zahawi or a Penny Mordaunt would perform as Prime Minister?
Then there’s Sajid Javid, personable but somehow lacking; Jeremy Hunt, moderate but flimsy; Priti Patel, very right-wing but extremely unpopular. The list could go on and on. They’ll only get one chance at this: they can’t keep swapping leaders in and out before they get to the next election. They have to be sure they’re picking right or face another disastrous dilemma.
In the end, all political projects end in hopeless impasse. New Liberalism could not solve the dilemma of freedom during total war; post-war social democracy and consensus Conservatism ran into inflation and industrial strife; Thatcherism could not tame the individualism it unleashed; New Labour eventually crumbled under the weight of expectations.
So it may be that the Conservatives have to accept that their leadership dilemma is actually something deeper: a crossroads beyond Brexit. They wanted more free trade, but they got huge tailbacks at Dover; they wanted Parliament to pass its own laws, but they don’t really believe they can rip up Britain’s rulebooks; they thought they wanted to build railways and bridges all over the North of England, but they don’t want to pay for it.
Boris Johnson is just the symbol of those paradoxes, dilemmas and troubled promises. The reason Conservative MPs hesitate, and may in the end grant Johnson a stay of political execution, is that they don’t really know the answers to deeper questions than lawbreaking in lockdown.
By Glen O’Hara, Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University and author of a number of books about modern Britain, most recently The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (2017). He is the Principal Investigator of the AHRC-funded project ‘In All Our Footsteps: Tracking, Mapping and Experiencing Rights of Way in Post-War Britain’, and is currently writing a book about the domestic policies of the Blair governments.