Boris Johnson beware. Ever since Britain first became a democracy in 1928, its prime ministers have been booted, or winkled, out of Downing Street rather than departing purely of their own free will. The only clear exception to the rule is Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 announced his retirement, having won a massive majority two years earlier and then ridding the country of its scandal-ridden, pro-German monarch.
Every one of Baldwin’s successors, apart from Macmillan (who quit owing to ill-health) and Wilson, who might have been able to hang on longer had he not quit before illness and exhaustion overwhelmed him, has resigned after losing a general election (Churchill, Attlee, Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown) or losing the confidence, or at least testing the patience, of their parliamentary colleagues (Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May).
Given, then, that ejection from within rather than from without is by no means uncommon, Johnson surely has cause for concern. Never as stunning as many imagine, his standing with the public is not only lower than it has ever been, it is lower than that enjoyed by many – indeed, quite possibly all – of his predecessors.
The PM is not widely trusted. He’s not considered competent. He’s not even that well-liked anymore. And we would find pretty much the same were we to scientifically survey Tory MPs at Westminster. They will be compulsively reading polls that, as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite, show Labour moving into a sustained lead not just on voting intention but on some of the key issues that help decide elections. Website ConservativeHome’s invaluable temperature-taking of the party’s grassroots suggests they are considerably less impressed with Johnson than they used to be and considerably more impressed with many of his colleagues.
Since so many of the underlying factors associated with a party getting shot of a prime minister would seem to be in play, one might have been forgiven for assuming that Johnson being issued with a fixed-penalty notice over partygate would have lit the blue touch paper.
And yet. And yet. Nothing to see here. At the last count, around 80 Tory MPs had voiced their support for the PM, apparently seeing nothing wrong with him breaking the laws he himself had made and misleading parliament about doing so. So far, only three MPs have called on him, in terms, to go since news of him and his chancellor being fined broke last Tuesday, while the only member of the government to quit in protest sits in the Lords not the Commons.
True, all that leaves well over 250 Tory MPs who have chosen to keep schtum, including many who, whether as junior ministers or lower-level bag-carriers, make up the “payroll vote” whose members are obliged to toe the party line. But anyone hoping that their silence is ominous, as opposed to simply spineless, is likely to be disappointed.
The reasons for this, according to the majority of Westminster-watchers, are mainly circumstantial. But is that the whole story? We’re informed, for instance, that even the most jaded of Johnson’s colleagues are having second thoughts after seeing him strutting the world stage once more, with Ukraine providing the party in the media (the columnists and the editors of the Tory-supporting press) with the “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” logic for keeping him in place. Yet, as others have pointed out with reference to two world wars and one Gulf war, that spurious logic hasn’t stayed MPs’ hands before now.
We’re also told that Rishi Sunak’s recent fall from grace, combined with lingering doubts about his keenest rival, Liz Truss, makes a leadership contest less likely since, the argument runs, there is no consensus as to who would take over. To which the obvious rejoinder is: when has such a consensus ever been required previously? If you’re stuck in a burning building with only one fire exit, you don’t wait to find out what’s on the other side before pushing open the door.
Then there’s the argument that, especially now that we’re fretting about our household finances, partygate is old news. It’s even suggested that we’ve all spent so long discussing whether or not the police would eventually fine Johnson, his breaking the law is effectively “priced in”, just as so many of his other fibs, flaws and foibles have been over the years. The problem with this argument is that for every survey cited to claim that the public wants to “move on”, one can find another that shows they’re still very angry about the whole thing and, by a substantial majority, want the PM gone.
And now there’s Rwanda. Apparently, only an out-and-out radical rightwing populist like Johnson could contemplate something so bold, all the more so if the liberal left falls headlong into such an obvious war-on-woke elephant trap. But is that the case? Take it from someone who’s spent far too long studying the issue: Tory governments have always stooped to conquer on immigration. It’s what they do.
We need, then, to look beyond pure contingency at the deeper reasons – some rational, others less so – behind Conservative MPs hanging on to Johnson in spite of what polling, their consciences, and some of the braver souls on their own side, might be telling them otherwise.
We could, for starters, look to “rational choice” approaches to politics. For example, one of those braver souls, the Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein, thinks Johnson should go but doubts he will, citing what he calls “a market failure in political coups” due to the fact that, although the majority of a party’s MPs might benefit from such a move, the costs, should it fail, are concentrated on the minority courageous enough to mount it.
Another explanation rooted in rational choice would focus on the fact that Johnson, since he has few, if any, fixed opinions and is now severely weakened, is relatively easy to push and pull in whatever direction most suits his colleagues and the media. Planning reform that might actually see enough houses built where they’re most needed? No thanks. Additional measures to combat Covid? I don’t think so. Net zero? Not so fast. Spending enough to really sort out social care or the NHS backlog or the chronic shortfall in local authority finances or the grave blow dealt by the pandemic to children’s education? Forget about it. Any new leader, by contrast, would, by dint of being given a fresh mandate, be far less easy to manipulate.
Then there’s the cognitive biases beloved of behavioural economists, in particular the sunk cost fallacy, which sees us carry on investing in projects (and people) into which we have already poured resources even when the possibility of a payback grows increasingly remote, a tendency exacerbated by the worry that giving the whole thing up as a bad job, especially if we’ve previously publicly defended our initial choice, would be tantamount to admitting we’ve been a bit of an idiot.
Perhaps, though, the explanation is even more psychological? Gratitude to Johnson for helping the Tories win a big majority back in 2019 is one thing, but gratitude is normally one of the most perishable quantities in party politics. “What have you done for me lately?” is normally the question to which leaders need to provide a persuasive answer. And in any case, does that gratitude really entitle the PM to exploit and abuse his supporters’ trust time and time again?
There is arguably, then, more than a whiff of co-dependency in the way that Johnson’s ministerial colleagues, by publicly defending him and prioritising his interests over their own dignity and conscience, effectively enable him to continue to behave in a manner that, from the outside anyway, would seem to be harmful to them. What’s more, keeping him there, whatever your politics, is surely trashing the idea that accountability needs to exist not only at elections but between them too. Ultimately, however, it seems to me that the ability of an utterly compromised prime minister to retain the confidence of his colleagues, in spite of his losing the support of the public and becoming a deadweight drag on his party’s popularity, must involve a degree of magical thinking.
Indeed, I would argue that like Churchill and Thatcher before him, Johnson has become what we might call a talismanic leader, one who, possessed by powers that sometimes seem superhuman, even supernatural, to his friends and foes alike will, whatever the current evidence to the contrary, supposedly see their party through the very worst of times and into the sunlit uplands.
A word of warning, however. As Churchill and Thatcher themselves learned the hard way, magic wears off. In an allusion that the prime minister himself may appreciate, talismanic amulets worn in Roman times occasionally bore the Latin inscription utere felix – “good luck to the user”. As we move towards local elections and a byelection in Wakefield, both of which could spell serious trouble for the Tories, Johnson and his parliamentary and media fan clubs are probably going to need it.
• This article was amended on 21 April 2022 to include Chamberlain among those who quit after losing the support of parliamentary colleagues, and to note Macmillan’s resignation on health grounds.
• Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of The British General Election of 2019