Making social science accessible

15 Jun 2023

Politics and Society

Tim Bale, author of The Conservative Party After Brexit: Turmoil and Transformation, argues that Boris Johnson’s resignation from the House of Commons is far from likely to cause a ‘Tory civil war’.

Ever since Boris Johnson announced he would be resigning his seat in the House of Commons, national newspapers have been full of stories about a ‘Tory civil war’. Indeed, that phrase has cropped up nearly as often in the week following his announcement as in the first six months of this year.

But is the Conservative Party really at war with itself right now – and from top to bottom? Or is what we are seeing simply a dramatic but essentially temporary reaction to its having decided, finally, to bin Boris Johnson?

Inevitably, the former prime minister’s enduring appeal to the party in the media (the columnists, editors and proprietors who are integral to the party and not just an external force acting upon it), as well as to some Tory members and MPs, is going to make getting shot of him completely very tricky.

But to suggest that their outrage at the way their hero has been treated amounts to civil war sets the bar for internecine conflict far too low.

Cast your mind back for a moment, to the dog days of 2018/19. Theresa May was desperately trying to garner support for her Brexit deal with the EU. The ERG (along with one B. Johnson Esq. of the parish of Uxbridge and South Ruislip) were equally desperately trying to destroy it – and her. Recall the confidence vote of December 2018 when some 117 Tory MPs – well over a third of the parliamentary Conservative Party – voted against their leader. Recall, too, the first ‘Meaningful Vote’ on her deal, which saw 118 of them troop into the No Lobby.

Now that’s what I call a civil war, certainly when you compare it to this last week when, by my reckoning, we’ve so far seen only around fifteen Tory MPs go into bat for Boris. Moreover, all of them are familiar to Tory-watchers – men and women who remain loyal to Johnson that some commentators have likened them to the ‘disciplined and deluded collection of stooges’ he once suggested were vital to anyone campaigning, as he once had, to become President of the Oxford Union.

The difference between now and then, however, isn’t just numerical. Three or four years ago there was a genuine battle of ideas – even ideals – going on: how hard a Brexit should the government be aiming for and what precisely did regaining sovereignty mean and entail? Boris Johnson, in his resignation statement, might have made passing mention of trade deals, tax cuts, EU directives, housing and animal welfare. But, in reality, it boiled down to him, him, him – and his failure to come to terms both with his ousting from Number Ten and his finally having to face the consequences of his actions, in spite of his supposedly self-evident claim (one all too often inflated by his diehard fans) to be the only Tory election-winner in town.

True, the really big splits in the Conservative Party have always seen fights over an issue conflated with competition for the crown – or, at the very least, competition for a place in ‘the court’ of whoever wears (or aspires to wear) it. As a result, arguments over what passes for high principle always take on an additional edge by being bound up with high (and therefore also low) politics. All the more so because Britain’s highly stratified class, educational and media systems mean that the characters involved have often been playing the same game with the same people for what can seem like forever.

Yet even if all politics inevitably involves not just ideas, interests and institutions, but also individuals. But hyperbolic loyalty to Johnson qua Johnson, seems to have trumped any commitment to ideology and to the preservation of party unity and to the electoral success that, in part depends on it – at least as far as some Tory newspapers, some Conservative MPs and some grassroots members are concerned.

The self-styled Conservative Democratic Organisation, for example, likes to claim that its main aim is to make the party more responsive to its rank and file. In reality, however, it is arguably little more than an extra-parliamentary fan-club for Boris Johnson – and one that, bankrolled and organised from the top-down rather than the bottom up, risks looking more astroturf than grassroots. Meanwhile, at Westminster itself, there are former colleagues of Johnson whose expressions of support and sympathy for him after in the immediate wake of his resignation hovered somewhere between outright idolatry and familiar conspiracy theory.

The idea, however, that either the CDO or the small bunch of MPs who publicly came out to support Johnson in the immediate aftermath of his resignation could possibly prosecute some kind of civil war is laughable.

The former’s conference down in Bournemouth in mid-May was far from an impressive affair, and it still has fewer than 3500 followers on twitter and only half as many on Facebook and just 141 on Instagram.

As for the MPs, we may, of course, see any vote on the Privileges Committee’s report flush out more faithful followers of Boris Johnson at Westminster – particularly if a rumoured plan to have the Commons ‘note’ rather than ‘accept’ it fails to come to fruition. But unless any rebellion even approaches the level Mrs May had to contend with before he managed to bring her down, then, can we – should we – really talk about a government and a party at war with itself? Sadly, however, I expect that we will: sometimes, whatever the truth of the matter, the headlines write themselves.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

On Tuesday, 20 June, Tim Bale is joined by The Rt Hon Dr Liam Fox, The Rt Hon Sir Robert Buckland and The Spectator’s Katy Balls to discuss party positioning and what this means for the next general election and beyond as part of our Lunch Hour series: sign up here.

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