Has the Conservative Party decided it wants to lose the next election?

boris johnson, rishi sunak, liz truss, has the conservative party decided it wants to lose the next election?
boris johnson, rishi sunak, liz truss, has the conservative party decided it wants to lose the next election?

Looking back, I was surprised to discover that David Cameron is the only recent Conservative former prime minister to have behaved with decorum toward his successors. I thought the Tories’ secret weapon was loyalty, but look at the record.

Ted Heath never forgave Margaret Thatcher for daring to stand against him, win, and hold power for three times as long as he did. Thatcher was unhelpful to John Major, stirring the party’s divisions over Europe. Major said that a prime minister who broke the law, naming no names (Boris Johnson), should resign. Theresa May was more measured, but could hardly be described as supportive, giving dignified speeches setting out her disagreements with Johnson, and occasionally abstaining in Commons votes. Only Cameron did the decent thing, leaving parliament and not saying very much at all.

Now Johnson has set a new benchmark for post-prime-ministerial disloyalty, opposing a policy he maintained when he was in No 10. He has put his name to an amendment to the levelling-up bill that would allow new onshore wind turbines. Most right-thinking greenish people agree that wind power is good, so it is an easy cause for which to rebel, but it scores 11 on the hypocrisy-ometer.

Liz Truss, who also signed the amendment, might score a little lower because she wasn’t prime minister for long enough for us to discover what her policy on onshore wind actually was – although she criticised solar panels on agricultural land in her campaign for the leadership.

She is as guilty as Johnson of hypocrisy on another front. Two of her three tweets since leaving Downing Street have demanded that the government should replace the main building of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at King’s Lynn. Yet when she was asked about this on BBC Radio Norfolk, as prime minister, she refused to give a commitment.

It is almost indecent to have two recent prime ministers campaigning for decisions that they weren’t prepared to make when they had the power to do so. But more than that, it suggests a determination to prevent Rishi Sunak from getting on with the job of rebuilding the Conservative government’s reputation, which Johnson and Truss did so much to destroy.

The onshore wind amendment may seem harmless enough because public opinion supports wind power (except for public opinion in most places where turbines might actually be built), but MPs can try to influence policy privately rather than dividing the party in public a month after a new prime minister has taken office.

If it were just Johnson and Truss, Sunak need not worry. But there are many more Tory MPs who want him to fail. One was quoted by The Times this morning, saying that the plan was to restore Johnson to the premiership when Sunak was ousted after the local elections in May next year: “We’re not going quietly. They won’t be able to get any legislation through.” That is just one anonymous blast of sound and fury, but it does signify something. There were 102 Tory MPs who thought it was a good idea to bring Johnson back a month ago, or 103 if you count Johnson himself. That is a large minority (29 per cent) of the parliamentary party.

As it happened, Johnson recognised last month that it wasn’t large enough; that it was too unstable a foundation on which to build a successful government; but if he can’t lead a successful Tory government he can at least make sure that nobody else can either.

This may be the kind of derangement that parties are prone to if they have been in power for too long. The prospect of Johnson returning in triumph to No 10 to rescue his party and his country, begged by the representatives of the people as the senators implored Cincinnatus to return from his plough, is so remote as to be fictional. Reading Sebastian Payne’s instant history, The Fall of Boris Johnson, reminds those with short memories how difficult it would be.

Johnson’s supporters regard the privileges committee investigation into whether he knowingly misled parliament as a witch hunt, and it might be fair to think it a waste of time if he were no longer an MP; but he is an MP, and if he wants to maintain the fiction that he could be prime minister again, he has to submit himself to scrutiny.

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Payne recounts how he told the Commons that all coronavirus rules had been followed in Downing Street, without pausing to consider how he or his advisers could possibly know. And Payne’s account of the later stages of the pandemic itself reminds us that Johnson’s record on that will be subject to the public inquiry imminently.

If Johnson’s supporters are on a holiday from reality, many of Truss’s supporters have also stayed on the sun-kissed beaches of fantasy island. Some of them reluctantly accepted that it hadn’t gone well and that “there is no way in which one can buck the market”, as Thatcher put it, but others are only pretending to have returned from their holiday, saying they are “working from home”. They still think the government should be cutting taxes, possibly funded by huge imaginary savings from cutting public spending on… (details to be supplied at a later date).

Sunak will find it harder and harder to govern with the dead weight of unreconciled Johnsonians and Trussites holding him back. Some Tory MPs have looked at the next election and made preparations for the exit, but the ones that Sunak should worry about are the ones who look at the next election and want him to lose it. Boris Johnson and Liz Truss prime among them.

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