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Good morning. Boris Johnson has survived the confidence vote, after a fashion. His victory by 211 to 148 in a ballot of Conservative MPs means he remains as leader, but one who is too weak to assert his leadership over the parliamentary party.
In a lot of ways that has been true since last autumn, when the first reports of Downing Street lockdown breaches began to appear in the news and the Tories lost the ultra-safe seat of North Shropshire to the Liberal Democrats.
One way that the prime minister has been very lucky is that since then, he has been forced to outsource much of his government’s direction to the parliamentary party’s collective judgment. That worked fine as far as the ending of coronavirus restrictions earlier this year is concerned. It probably moved the Tory party into a better position politically on inflation, thanks to the £15bn package that the government didn’t really want to unveil to help households.
But Terry Pratchett’s old gag that “the intelligence of that creature known as a crowd is the square root of the number of people in it” also applies to the parliamentary party. The fact that the prime minister is too weak to choose a direction for his government probably means they will end up in trouble sooner or later. But as for Johnson himself, well, I’m not convinced. I think his chances of leading the party into the next election are pretty good, for reasons I explain in today’s email. Send feedback and howls of anguish to the email address below.
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So many reasons he should stay. One by one, they all just fade away
Boris Johnson survives — but not for much longer, according to consensus at Westminster. Meanwhile, the Telegraph, so often Johnson’s supporters’ club, has described the 211 to 148 margin as a “hollow victory” on its front page.
Margaret Thatcher survived the first challenge to her leadership in 1989 by a much greater margin (314 to 33 votes) and was out in less than a year. Theresa May survived hers by a greater margin (200 to 117) and was out in less than a year. As my colleague Robert Shrimsley puts it:
Precedent suggests that once a leader faces a leadership challenge they are on the way out. Such contests have many causes, but driving all of them is the sense among MPs that they are headed for defeat. It is why they rarely end well for the incumbent, even if, initially, they prevail.
Or as one MP put it to the i’s Paul Waugh:
It’s like a lion chasing a zebra. The zebra may escape but with a gammy leg that will get infected. And he’ll be down in the end.
You’ll rarely go broke in politics betting that history will repeat itself. But I think there are good reasons to use the former Conservative leader John Major’s confidence vote (218 to 89) as the better guide here.
What did it for Thatcher was that she had a big and controversial reform to local government finance in the shape of the community charge (aka the poll tax). She wanted to push ahead with it regardless of the risk to her position and that of her government, and ultimately paid for it with her job.
May had a different, but similar problem. The ticking clock created by the Article 50 process meant that she was always going to have to present a Brexit deal to parliament, and the challenge of getting Brexit through a hung parliament finished her off.
There is no external force forcing the prime minister to do something controversial that splits the Conservative party in parliament, and Johnson himself shows no indication or hunger to do so. This is a government that has had three anti-obesity strategies and has U-turned on everything from fracking to conversion therapy to lockdown to planning reform to energy security. If Johnson is planning to go down in some kind of death-or-glory plan to reform some part of the British state, he has kept that instinct well-hidden thus far.
There is one moment of major danger: next year’s local elections. Unlike this year’s local elections, where the Conservatives were defending very few council seats, in 2023 they are defending more than 3,500, a much larger number than any other party. On top of that, when they last took place, Labour and the Tories were level in the polls. If Johnson can survive that, I see no reason to believe that he won’t be able to hobble along, drifting uncertainly towards his own date with the electorate sometime late in 2024 or early in 2025.
January is the cruellest month
On that, Michael Gove has taken to reminding colleagues that under the terms of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act, which returned the right to choose an election date to the executive after the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act handed it to the legislature (parliament), the absolute latest that the next election can take place is January 2025.
As the former prime minister Harold Macmillan noted in his diary, the fifth year in the parliament is really only there “as a reserve” when things are going badly. It’s possible, of course, that economic circumstances and the government’s standing will be revitalised by events. But I don’t think we should rule out the possibility that the next election takes place in the late autumn of 2024 or even the start of 2025.
Now try this
I saw the film Bergman Island, which, to be frank, I thought was pretty dreadful. (For a different, more sophisticated take, try Danny Leigh.)
The presence of the brilliant actor Anders Danielsen Lie, recently such a magnetic presence in the flawless comedy-drama The Worst Person In The World felt like a particularly cruel casting choice, as every moment he was on screen I was reminded of a better way to spend a night at the pictures. As Danny wrote in his review, it is a “bittersweet character study, a film that like many people’s 30s, starts as a romp then grows sadder the longer it goes on”. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Also, the FT’s editor Roula Khalaf will interview Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky at 10:30am BST, as FT Live’s Global Boardroom conference kicks off today. Register here for free to watch that and FT journalists’ conversations with other government and business leaders live.