The Conservative Party in the UK is in a state of turmoil. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s fate hangs on a report by Sue Gray, a senior civil servant, that is due anytime. The Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are manoeuvring for the top job, along with a growing list of rivals.
An unknown number of Tory MPs have sent in letters demanding another leadership election. A former Tory MP has jumped ship for the Labour Party, with more to follow, according to many sources. And the Whips Office stands accused of telling one MP that he would lose funding for a local project if he didn’t vote with the government and another that she was being sacked from a government job because of her “Muslimness.”
What on earth is going on? British politics has always been given to treason and plot. The Palace of Westminster — home of the UK parliament — is a rabbit warren of a place with endless hidden nooks and crannies (and indeed bars and cafés) where politicians can huddle together (or brief the press). Anthony Trollope wrote a succession of thick novels about parliamentary shenanigans. Infant politicians at Oxford and Cambridge pride themselves on their ability to knife each other in the back.
And the Conservative Party has often been the prime vehicle for all this plotting. In 1962, Harold Macmillan sacked seven of his Cabinet ministers, a third of the total, in what was dubbed the “night of the long knives.” Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May were all brought down by their fellow MPs rather than the electorate.
Throughout most of his time as prime minister, John Major was locked in battle with a group of leaders who wanted to destroy him. The popular American TV series “House of Cards” was based on a British TV series starring Ian Richardson as a Machiavellian Conservative chief whip. This in turn was based on a series of novels by Michael Dobbs, a Tory Party apparatchik.
Country of “lovers” and “haters
But despite all this what is going on at the moment is unusual. Disobedience is now becoming an ingrained habit rather than a port of last resort. Turmoil is becoming a permanent state of affairs rather than a brief hiatus between two regimes. In the past an 80-seat majority would have brought years of unchallenged rule. Now it has no more power to awe critics than John Major’s 21-seat majority.
The obvious reason for this is the prime minister’s Marmite personality. The prime minister’s style — part-old Etonian charm, part a natural bluster, and part Cavalier disregard for the rules — instantly divides the country into “lovers” and “haters.” But there is more to the Marmite than this: Many people, particularly in the Tory Party, start off by liking him and end by loathing him. Johnson has a long history of using people to get what he wants: political colleagues and personal friends.
An insider describes Downing Street as being like Henry VIII’s court with petitioners perpetually surrounding the king and trying to get him to listen to their cases.
Remember that Johnson’s first run for the top job was cut short when one of his leading supporters, Michael Gove, suddenly withdrew his support for him and announced his own candidacy instead — on the grounds that Johnson was incapable of providing the leadership needed to lead Britain into its post-Brexit future.
Johnson’s inability to “do detail” has created a space for a powerful chief of staff. This job was first filled by Dominic Cummings who feuded with everyone around him — particularly with senior civil servants he regarded as jobsworths and back-bench MPs he looked at as dolts.
Johnson eventually sacked Cummings and replaced him with a man who was as different as you can get. Too different, perhaps: Dan Rosenfeld is an organisational man who lacks the political experience to act as a peace broker between Johnson and MPs.
A second reason is ideology. For most of its history, the Tory Party has been a proudly anti-ideological party and its plots have all been about power and position. But this changed in the 1980s with the rise first of free-market radicalism and then of its ugly stepdaughter, Euroscepticism. Ideology not only gave Tories something other than power to plot about.
It dissolved traditional bonds of loyalty: A growing number of Tories felt that their ideological allegiance meant more than their allegiance to the party. The Euroskeptic European Research Group operated as a party within the party, with its own whipping system, and repeatedly destabilised May’s government in pursuit of a “clean Brexit.”
For a while, it looked as if Johnson’s triumph in the 2019 general election might mark the end of ideology and its corrosive impact on Toryism. The generation-long civil war over Europe had been resolved in favour of Euroscepticism. Johnson tried to reconcile the left and right of the party with a mixture of nationalism and social interventionism (he described himself as “a Brexity Hezza,” referring to Michael Heseltine, Thatcher’s leading critic from the party’s left).
But both ideology and disobedience are habit forming. The Party’s libertarian wing has turned against Johnson because of his willingness to side with “the science” over covid lockdowns and his decision to raise National Insurance contributions by 1.25% in order to pay for social care.
The biggest worry for Conservative Party managers is that the problem is not just one of leadership that might be fixed by a change at the top but a problem of followership. Tory MPs have lost the habit of followership that is necessary to make parliamentary systems work properly. Tory MPs in general have been in power for so long that they have forgotten what life is like in the wilderness
There is always the chance that Gray’s report will provide Johnson with enough wiggle room to escape. But even if this current storm blows over there are many more brewing just over the horizon.
Adrian Wooldridge is a columnist. He was previously a writer at the Economist. His latest book is “The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World.”