Knifing Boris

2 June 2022

Knifing Boris

Play up and play the game.

By Robert Kilconner

To those who love to watch TV quiz games, the tactics of the moves required to sack Boris Johnson as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister will have a familiar feel. Choices are offered and boxes are chosen but, rather than leading directly to a result, they are the entry to further questions or series of questions. Choose box A? Was that a good choice? It all depends on whether you can answer the questions to which box A is the entry.

The sacking of a Conservative leader is a two stage process. The first requirement is that the chairman of the 1922 committee receives letters from 15% of Conservative MPs. That is 54, under current parliamentary arithmetic. So far nobody but the Chairman, Sir Graham Brady, knows how many have been lodged.

Once that threshold has been met, a poll is taken and if a majority of the MPs vote to fire the leader, out he goes. So far so simple, but what makes the procedure interesting is that if the leader survives the poll he (or she, of course, this is the system which resulted in the political demise of Margaret Thatcher) cannot be challenged again for 12 months.

That makes the choice of disgruntled MPs an interesting one. Trigger a poll and win a majority for replacement and all is well. Trigger a poll and lose it and you have simply locked the leader in place, possibly until it is too close to a general election to make a change. What, then, should Conservative MPs do now?

There can be little doubt that public confidence in Mr Johnson is on a downward spiral. That isn’t because of resentment at his breach of the lockdown rules, people know that prime ministers behave badly from time to time, but because of the quality of his administration. The important thing about the Sue Gray report was that it revealed a Downing Street out of control and it is hard to imagine that an administration whose centre is in such disorder is up to the job. Then there are policy changes, too often following public opinion, the slackening of standards as exemplified by the revision of the Ministerial Code, and ministers who owe their place to loyalty rather than ability. None of this is getting any better (see the attempts by the administration to push Boris loyalist Hogan-Howe into the leadership of the National Crime Agency) and by the time of the next election the public will be thoroughly sick of it. The path then, if nothing is done, is to a Starmer-led Labour administration in a couple of years’ time.

Many readers will think that a perfectly sensible outcome, but it is not attractive to Conservative MPs and particularly to those in marginal seats. They therefore have to make their choice as to whether to lodge a letter knowing that to trigger and then lose a poll would be a disaster. Not so long ago the tactical advice would have been to hold fire, partygate looking like a spent issue in the context of war in the Ukraine and the continuing pandemic. Then there seemed to be some possibility of the government pulling through.

It doesn’t feel like that any longer and the risk of a poll being triggered and then lost seems to be receding. Once it has been called all Conservative MPs will be faced with the simple question of whether to get rid of the Prime Minister or whether to bind him in place for a further year. It would require an extraordinary level of optimism to think that the latter course will improve electoral prospects or indeed – and this is hardly unimportant – secure a good government for the country over the next 12 months.

This is the maths which the dissatisfied Tory MPs must be doing and it is hard to see any basis on which matters should be deferred any longer. Play up, ladies and gentlemen! Play up and play the game!

tile photo:by Anis Rahman on Unsplash

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