The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, appears to be riding out the scandal of holding lockdown parties in 10 Downing Street, in contravention of the laws in place at the time. Johnson, along with his next door neighbour, Chancellor Rishi Sunak, have received fines for one breach, with more expected to follow.
This is the first time that a serving prime minister (and Chancellor) have been found guilty of breaking the law, and I think that previous prime minister’s would have felt that they had to resign their post, but not Boris Johnson. As one of his former housemasters at Eton school reported, Johnson doesn’t think that rules apply to him. Indeed, he has pretty much made a career in politics on this basis.
In these circumstances, one might expect Tory MPs, who are well aware of how badly this whole saga has gone down with voters in their constituencies, to remove him by calling for a vote of no confidence in him, but very few have done so. I think some of them do see the importance of honesty and integrity, of which Johnson is completely lacking, but they appear to be nervous about bringing him down.
The most common reason that many are citing for their inaction, is that whilst there is the ongoing war in Ukraine, no change of leader can be contemplated. This view ignores history, where prime ministers have been changed, most notably Herbert Asquith, during in World War I, and Neville Chamberlain during in World War II. These were wars that Britain was actually fighting too, which is not the case with current conflict in Ukraine.
What real difference would it make if Johnson was replaced? None, I think. Somebody else can go around making breezy speeches, with no difference one way or the other, but many Tory MPs are taking refuge in this thinking. But this might change, and a look at previous Tory prime ministers who have been removed in recent times by their MPs, is instructive.
Margaret Thatcher, was brought down in 1990, a prime minister much more powerful and respected than Johnson, mainly over the unpopular Poll Tax policy. This led to defeat for the Tories in a byelection in Eastbourne in September 1990, normally a rock solid Tory constituency. She resigned in November of same the same year, having lost the confidence of her ministers.
Theresa May, was forced to resign in 2019, after it became clear that she would face a no confidence vote from her MPs. The Tories recorded only 8.8% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections earlier that year. Her premiership was dogged by a failure of MPs to agree with her attempts to get a post Brexit deal from the European Union.
So, we can see that the commonest factor in Tory MPs removing their sitting prime minister, is how well they see their prospects of retaining their seats in a future general election. Tory MPs were always well aware of Johnson’ shortcomings, but recognised that he was popular with the voters, and so this trumped all else.
Which brings us to the current situation. Is Johnson still a winner? Opinion polls suggest not, with 75% of those surveyed saying that they believe the prime minister to be a liar. The breaching of lockdown rules touches the public in a way that perhaps other issues do not. Most people followed the rules, and many have memories of not being able see loved ones, in some cases before these people died from Covid. They expected the people making these rules to follow them, like they did.
On 5 May local elections throughout the UK will take place. If voters reject the Tory party in huge numbers, over their outrage of the breaches of the lockdown rules, this will put pressure on Tory MPs to act, out of self-interest, if nothing else. There is also a Parliamentary byelection coming in Wakefield, a seat the Tories gained in 2019.
A harbinger of what may happen can be seen in recent local byelections. The Green party has gained two seats from the Tories over recent weeks. In Storrington and Washington and Lyme and Charmouth, they made impressive gains from the Tories. Will something similar happen in the upcoming local council elections? It may well be so.