Every day Johnson clings on my old party sinks further into the abyss

If they are still led by a man who holds the principles of public life in contempt, the Conservatives will deserve to lose the next election on the scale of 1997

June 07, 2022
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Having been a Conservative Party member for 48 years, I believe that if one thing has defined Conservatism, it is the strong belief in the need to uphold the integrity of national institutions. Conservatives might make policy errors, but we could be relied on not to wilfully damage our system of governance and, if it were at risk of being undermined, to take strong action to protect it. Of course, like all principles in politics it might come under strain and risk at times looking more like myth than reality. But I never had cause to doubt that it was an aspiration deeply embedded in our Conservative DNA—a constant that defined us in the eyes of the electorate as much as ourselves. There was no party leader from 1997, when I first entered the Commons, to July 2019 for whom this was not important.

But this has changed dramatically with the advent of Johnson as prime minister. The crisis he has engendered in the heart of the party by his misbehaviour in the way he has run No 10, tolerating and participating in the breach of his own lockdown rules, is only the latest example of his contempt and disregard for principles of good governance and standards of integrity in public life. Proroguing parliament for unlawful reasons, seeking to overturn the suspension of Owen Paterson from the Commons for serious misconduct and his propensity for lying whenever it suits him are deeply corrosive of public trust. And this is accompanied by chaotic incompetence in managing government. Yesterday’s vote, in which 148 of his MPs expressed no confidence in him, is the direct result of the way he has conducted himself as prime minister. Those who did so transcended any past or present divisions on policy within the party. They were united by their concern that the party was forfeiting public trust.

What is more worrying, however, is that there were in these circumstances still 210 willing to vote for him. It suggests that the corrupting influence of Johnson’s view of what is acceptable in politics has infected quite a large number of colleagues. That Jacob Rees-Mogg, who seeks to epitomise the traditions of patrician conservatism with an emphasis on religious belief and honourable behaviour, should seriously consider Johnson’s serial misconduct a “bagatelle” speaks volumes for disintegrating standards, as do the assertions of others who persist in the view he is an election winner. Where half a century ago Johnson’s behaviour would have led to a string of cabinet colleagues informing him that either he goes or they go, the Cabinet is a scene of pusillanimous silence and sycophantic, if in some cases mealy mouthed, words of support.

Yet I doubt very much that this crisis is going away. The size of the rebellion against Johnson was a reflection of the views of the electorate, communicated to MPs over the Jubilee bank holiday and to be heard on every street. It is an even more vivid manifestation of the electorate’s views in Conservative heartlands that was already apparent in the Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire by-elections and in the local elections last month. I would be surprised if it is not also made clear in Tiverton and Honiton shortly. I note that individuals in my old Association in Beaconsfield who wished me gone in 2019 over my views on Brexit now denounce Johnson as a charlatan and demand his removal. Indeed, it is noticeable that those who continue to support him seem to be drawn from an angry nationalistic fringe that has never been the party’s core strength.

Johnson may well cling on. But the longer he does, the greater the damage to the Conservative Party will be—the risk is that if he is removed later, but before the next general election, any successor will be unable to turn things round. Short of a miracle, the destiny of a once-great party will be to be reduced again to the condition it was in after the 1997 election. It will be entirely self-inflicted and entirely deserved. Meanwhile Johnson will find that with a substantial number of recalcitrant MPs, his ability to govern is severely compromised and with that will come a succession of setbacks that will weaken the party’s standing at every turn.

Many who do not vote Conservative will probably welcome this. But all of us require, for the proper functioning of our parliamentary democracy, that we can respect politicians even if we disagree fundamentally with them. Central to this is honesty, honourable behaviour and an adherence to high standards in public life. On all these issues Johnson is taking the party into an abyss of his own creation and it is our country collectively that will pay the cost for it.