Mark Thomas / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson has re-toxified the Tory brand

The prime minister’s cavalier rule-breaking confirmed the public’s worst suspicions about the Conservative Party
January 21, 2022

When Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams played Elizabeth I of England and Mary Queen of Scots in Robert Icke’s memorable Almeida production of Mary Stuart a few years ago, the play opened with a coin spinning in a bowl. The actors alternated between the  two roles and it was “heads or tails” to determine who should play which part each night. When the result was announced, everyone else on the stage turned instantly towards Elizabeth. It was a perfect  illustration of how  authority is not asserted by a leader,  but bestowed by those around the centre of power. 

There are echoes of this exquisite theatrical moment in the current political drama. It is becoming increasingly clear that the actors on the Tory stage have turned away from Boris Johnson. Already, as the prime minister’s political and moral authority evaporates, the debate in the Conservative Party has switched from whether he should be protected to who should inherit his crown. Johnson’s premiership is over. It’s just a question of when and how he leaves No 10.

I am writing before the publication of Sue Gray’s report into the Downing Street parties. By the time this piece comes out, events may have accelerated towards their inevitable outcome. Most Tory MPs never loved Johnson. They voted for him to be their leader because they thought he was a winner. Now, as they see their party slipping 10 points behind in the polls and the PM’s personal ratings nosediving, that is no longer the case. There may have been a temporary stay of execution after the defection of Christian Wakeford but the underlying sentiment is, as David Davis put it dramatically: “In the name of God, go.”

A switch has been flicked in the country and the Conservative Party. No so-called “Operation Red Meat” or “Operation Save Big Dog” will flick it back. One influential former Cabinet minister who supported Johnson for the leadership says: “he’s a very bad man, and he’s not capable of change… the longer he stays the more damage he will do to the party.” 

Another Conservative backbencher in a northern English seat told me that he had decided to submit his letter of no confidence in the prime minister after a weekend responding to furious emails from his constituents. “The Conservative association have dropped him like a hot potato and the mood in the constituency, which was 70 per cent Leave, is very bleak. It’s the lifelong Conservatives who are the most dismayed. They tell me ‘it’s not about you, you are a decent man, please do the decent thing because he’s destroying the party.’ It’s the sense of entitlement that people find most infuriating.” He said some of his colleagues in government felt the same, even if they were not saying so publicly. “I was asked by one minister, ‘is it anonymous to send in a letter?’” the MP confided.

A Tory peer compares the “bring your own booze” parties in No 10 to the revelation that the schoolgirl Millie Dowler’s phone had been hacked by the News of the World, which led to the paper being closed down. “It’s the human dimension that cuts through to people. Every single family can relate to this. It doesn’t matter whether Boris Johnson went to one party or 10 parties. If you can live with the fact that you were there having socially distanced drinks while someone couldn’t say goodbye to their loved one, that’s not only cruel, it’s reckless. To find out that the drinking was semi-institutionalised is simply unforgivable. He owes it to the country to go.”

The parties in No 10 are on one level utterly trivial—compared, for example, to the decision to send elderly patients back into care homes, or the failure to close the borders at the start of the pandemic—but they are symbolic of the prime minister’s own character flaws.  

One of Johnson’s closest allies was, I am told, going around during the first lockdown suggesting to anyone who would listen that “rules are for little people.” That Downing Street staff thought it was acceptable to be wheeling wine into No 10, at the same time as the country was making enormous sacrifices to follow the government’s own rules, reveals a culture of contempt for ordinary citizens that can only have come from the top. 

The prime minister’s only hope is that his error will be outweighed by the success of the vaccine rollout and his wider reputation; his supporters insist he should be judged “in the round.” But that would only make his situation worse. The mindset that led him to attend a drinks bash was not a one-off; it also led him to withhold messages about the the Downing Street flat refurbishment, ignore bullying complaints against Priti Patel and try to protect Owen Paterson from sanctions for breaching lobbying rules. The prime minister has always thought that the normal moral, political and social constraints do not apply to him. As one of his teachers at Eton put it in a school report: “he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds everyone else.” 

The problem, which MPs are acutely aware of, is that this personal character flaw taps into a defining weakness in the Tory Party brand. The Conservatives have spent over a decade trying to shed the perception that they are elitist and out of touch, and Johnson has now reinforced those negative characteristics. As one senior Conservative says: “he is proving every single prejudice that people have against the Tories… David Cameron tried to clean up the party, it felt fresh and positive for a while. Now it feels arrogant and entitled again.”

One Tory MP who spoke to me agrees that Johnson is rapidly re-toxifying the Conservative brand. “Even if it was Alfred the Great who took over tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the way people see the party—our fundamental problem is that the voters don’t think we are on the side of working people, all the gallivanting around just reminds everyone that they think we are the party of the rich.” Meanwhile the Brexiteers, who were Johnson’s most fervent supporters, no longer need him to deliver their Eurosceptic dream and in any case have lost faith in him over lockdown rules.

Johnson’s supporters insist he should be judged “in the round.” But that would only make his situation worse

Downing Street hopes the political caravan will move on to other issues—such as the lifting of Covid-19 restrictions, or the cost of living pressures. But both of these play into the toxic “one rule for them, another rule for the rest of us” narrative that has been set in train by the No 10 parties. Liberalisation is a reminder of the controls that were in place at the same time as the prime minister’s staff were installing a wine fridge; the energy crisis will only increase frustration over the inequality between the “haves” and “have nots.” There is an underlying problem in that Johnson has not resolved the tension in his political coalition between the Red Wall Conservatives, who support higher taxes to fund a bigger state, and the “true blue” Tory free marketers who yearn to create a low-tax, low-regulation Singapore-on-Thames.

Johnson was once seen as a “Heineken” politician, who had an extraordinary ability to reach other parts of the country that other Tories could not. But now there’s a Heineken hangover, and the characteristics that once appealed are a turn off to the electorate. The scruffy hair and shambolic appearance have become infuriating. One Labour strategist compares it to falling out of love with an old boyfriend: “the things you really liked at the beginning become the things that annoy you the most as the relationship comes to an end.”

Johnson’s greatest strength was that the normal rules of politics did not apply to him. His greatest weakness is that he thinks he is above the rules that govern the rest of society. That is why his party knows he has to go. One former minister says: “it’s like when you do an online transaction, you get sent a one-time code. Boris was the Tories’ one-time code. His leadership was for a particular time, but it’s about to expire.”