You do not need a long memory to know the chaos of government under a terminally damaged leader. Recent British politics offers examples in abundance. The worst case was the final months of Theresa May, but John Major, Gordon Brown, even Tony Blair at the end, offered brutal lessons on life under a zombie premier who has lost the confidence of the public and their party.
Bad ideas are advanced to restore favour but every gambit falls flat. Difficult decisions are shelved. The government cannot get past the narrative of a leader too obviously wearing their desperation. This is the purgatory towards which Tories are stumbling.
For when the cabinet office report into the lockdown-breaching Downing Street parties is finally published and the police investigations conclude, Boris Johnson’s defence strategy is clear. Apologise where he must, blame others where he can, sacrifice staff in order to save his own skin and — above all else — stave off the vote of confidence from his own MPs in the hope he can regain public support. Yet while preventing such a vote may be in his interest, it is in no one else’s. Not the country’s and not even his party’s.
There are two major arguments being marshalled by Johnson’s allies in his defence. The first is that the issue is too trivial to bring down a leader. The second is that toppling him would see Tories on their fourth leader in six years, surely the definition of dysfunctionality.
To the outside world the “partygate” affair must indeed look bizarre. A nation which cheerfully elected a prime minister who unlawfully suspends parliament and threatens to break international treaties is apparently demanding his exit over a birthday bash and a bring your own booze party. One supportive newspaper talked of a nation “that’s lost all sense of proportion” as it frets over cakes amid the crisis in Ukraine.
It is a nice try, though this is also an argument for purging the source of the ridicule. More important, a system in which leaders obey the laws they impose is central to maintaining trust in democracy. This is not about parties or cakes but wanton breaches of swingeing laws inhibiting personal freedom imposed by the state and violations clear enough to now merit police action. Demanding that those who introduced them are also bound by them is not a small matter and no country that insists on this standard has lost its sense of proportion.
At least as important for the Conservatives is that Johnson has left the public feeling like mugs for obeying the rules. In this he has united those who supported lockdowns and those who opposed them, and they are not going to forget.
Understandably Johnson wants to stop his MPs holding a confidence vote in his leadership. He fears that the contest might see the dam burst, though many Conservatives still think he would survive, albeit with a damaging number voting against him.
But the stability of both nation and party depend on him facing that moment sooner rather than later. For many, Johnson’s defenestration is the only tolerable outcome. But at least, if he wins, he has secured his position and with it some authority. And voters will also know where his party stands on his behaviour. But a premier still trying to head off a confidence vote is permanently enfeebled, constantly calculating which policy will buy him time, which might provoke the challenge.
And Johnson has already given the nation a glimpse of what that hobbled leadership looks like. His ludicrously named Operation Red Meat, launched last week to no ovation, showed where a wounded Johnson’s instincts lead him — to attacks on the BBC and more empty assaults on asylum seekers crossing the Channel. Even if he offers something popular — lower borrowing gives him room to delay the planned National Insurance increase to fund the NHS and social care — it will be viewed through the prism of this unresolved crisis as a move to buy back public and parliamentary support.
Leaders frequently survive crises. Often MPs can afford to wait and see if things change, but the report is not going to get him off the hook. This is now paralysing the party and government and it will not blow over. It has to be brought to a head.
Furthermore, the party machinery is shattered. The Number 10 operation has already been through one clear-out to no great benefit. The whips’ office is so broken Johnson feels unable to rely on it to save himself. Decisions are being delayed, the chancellor Rishi Sunak has largely disappeared and rivals are weighing every action for its impact in an imminent leadership contest. Johnson’s MPs are in open revolt and Conservative councillors fear a rout in May’s local elections.
And these are simply the political arguments rather than the moral one. The country and party need the issue settled. If he survives a challenge, the public still may not forgive him but at least he will no longer be haemorrhaging authority and waiting for the blow to fall. The government can move on.
Which brings us back to the second argument — four prime ministers in six years. A party that gets through leaders at that speed does indeed have serious problems. But this cannot go on and voters will judge Tory MPs harshly if they lack the nerve to end the paralysis. Johnson cannot be allowed to languish. Resurrection or removal are their only options. MPs must trigger the vote and make the call.