Boris Johnson must know Conservatives love to oust their leaders

Margaret Thatcher won the challenge to her leadership but was finished off by colleagues within days

Boris Johnson leaves from the back entrance of Downing Street. Reuters
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In his memoirs. the former Conservative chancellor Kenneth Clarke recounts how he received a phone call from one of Margaret Thatcher's close aides after she narrowly won a party leadership contest with Michael Heseltine in 1990.

At the time the UK was in a build-up to the Gulf War over Kuwait and Mrs Thatcher had been in Downing Street for more than 11 years. Her failure to win the party vote outright meant a second round loomed and Cabinet ministers like Mr Clarke were losing confidence in her ability to win. "I told [her aide] I would definitely not be campaigning any further and that I would probably not support her in the second ballot," he said.

He later learnt that Mrs Thatcher had been hoping he would be the campaign manager for the next stage. A few hours later Mr Clarke was one of the succession of Cabinet ministers who met the Iron Lady face to face, where he told the prime minister her hopes of staying on were as doomed as the infamous Charge of the Light Brigade in which the British cavalry were mown down by Russian guns in Crimea.

Alan Clark, a Thatcher die-hard and diarist entered shortly after and Mrs Thatcher was still maintaining that she was "a fighter". "Fight then," he said. "Fight to the end, a third ballot if you need to. But you lose."

The prospect of losing their career to an internal revolt has caught up with every Conservative prime minister barring David Cameron ever since. Mrs Thatcher's immediate successor, Sir John Major, overcame his rivals in a "put up or shut up" showdown in 1995, but the infighting took a toll and he was beaten by Tony Blair in a general election landslide in 1997.

Potentially the most wounding contest yet seen came in 2018 when Theresa May did not face a challenger but a simple vote of confidence in her leadership. She won by 200 votes to 117, but the searing toll of Brexit divisions were already too much to bear. By the following summer she received a visit from the leader of the "grey suits", Sir Graham Brady, who told her he would reopen the vote if she did not go. She stood in tears in Downing Street as she relinquished the job she had dedicated her adult life to gaining.

On Monday, Boris Johnson fared worse than Thatcher, Major or May as he faced his own confidence vote. With 148 votes against, the loss of only 42 additional colleagues would have forced the British leader into stepping down.

The trigger for Monday's vote was the long series of scandals after which Mr Johnson paid a police fine for participating in a birthday party in June 2020 when the country was under Covid-19 lockdown regulations that made these gatherings illegal.

Political pollster James Johnson says his work shows Mr Johnson's woes go much deeper than Mrs May's did. She briefly benefited from a "move on spirit" after her no-confidence vote and had public ratings much better than Mr Johnson's are now.

Others who suffered mid-term dips such as Mr Cameron were, according to the pollster, able to show they had a strategy that was working or a plan to turn around the reasons why their popularity was low by the time of a subsequent election.

Mr Johnson's leadership does not show much opportunity for weaving together that narrative. "We’ve never had a prime minister come back where only one in four of the population want them to stay," he said. "Boris Johnson was the great election winner ― I just can’t see any evidence that he is that for the Conservative Party any longer."

According to the polling data, voters are shifting their criticism of Mr Johnson to the wider party. His latest surveys last week in the Wakefield area, a so-called Red Wall seat where the Conservatives face a by-election defeat on June 23, were suggesting that the voters felt the confidence outcome showed the party itself did not care about them.

"The problem is the brand damage is done, and with a result like that it’s impossible for the party to move on," he said. "Boris Johnson's previous assets that won him the Red Wall ― like voters feeling he was 'strong' ― are now his weaknesses.

"The decline in these numbers is one reason I do not think the Conservatives can win a majority with him as leader."

The sequence of his descent into scrabbling for support in party backrooms would be humiliating for most but are part and parcel of the ups and downs of a tumultuous life for Mr Johnson. Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was born a “one-man melting pot” with Jewish, Muslim and Christian roots, who declared at eight years old that he intended to become “world king”.

When the post of prime minister became his in mid-2019, it was only natural that his leadership would set a different tone from almost every other occupant of Downing Street.

During his time behind the famous black door, Mr Johnson has become a father twice. He thanked the country’s health workers who saved his life after spending three days in intensive care after contracting Covid-19. He recovered only for his next birthday party to earn him a police fine and the ruthless Conservative Party backlash now playing out.

A snap election in December 2019 broke the rules of recent political gravity and Mr Johnson secured a winning majority of more than 80 for the first time since 2005. It was a victory that came on top of two colourful terms as mayor of London and his time in one of the highest ministerial offices, foreign secretary.

The big issue that he will forever be identified with is Britain leaving the EU. To win his landslide Mr Johnson claimed that he had an oven-ready deal to get Brexit done. Even now the issue is far from done. In the days after the confidence vote he was preparing to declare that the Northern Ireland Protocol, a pillar of his deal, would have to be junked, a move that his critics condemned as illegal.

An early and constant supporter of Ukraine as it faced invasion from Russia, Mr Johnson has boldly gone where others feared to move first. Just on Monday he presented Kyiv with the long-range multiple-launch rocket systems that the US and others have refused to hand over. Russia TV has mocked up sequences depicting a nuclear strike on the UK.

All the variables of risk and reward are often said to be “baked in” to Mr Johnson’s political share price. What became known as Partygate, the police and official reports into gatherings at No10 when the country was in lockdown, upended all those calculations. The focus is now on his character and for that reason many believe another Conservative revolt is a matter of when, not if.

Martin Hammond, his housemaster at Eton College, wrote prophetically in his 1982 school report about an almost religious dedication to rule breaking. “I think 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,” he said.

By contrast Conrad Black, the Canadian entrepreneur who owned The Daily Telegraph and The Spectator, was a fierce champion of the man he promoted from journalist to editor. “He possesses a number of remarkable qualities," he has written. "He had his lapses, but he was capable, successful and reliable when it counted."

It cannot be denied that his flaws create enemies who then linger for the chance to take revenge. Facing Jeremy Hunt, his rival for the Conservative leadership, Mr Johnson waved a fish onstage and wrongly claimed the EU had forced British fishmongers to deliver the product with “ice pillows”.

Mr Hunt was forthright in declaring it was time for change when the vote was triggered on Monday. A fair slice of the MPs who voted against the prime minister will have felt betrayed in political terms by Mr Johnson. Others bore a more personal toll of let-down and disappointment. Those issues have not gone away even if all sides have promised to respect the outcome.

Sonia Purnell, a biographer and former colleague, believes the prime minister's nature means he will be back in crisis very soon. "Let's not forget why we are where we are," she said. "It is because he has failed to govern in a good way. He's not going to change. You are always going to have these issues of integrity, it's not going to be the last scandal.

"This will keep coming back."

Updated: June 10, 2022, 6:00 PM