LONDON — In a different era, it had the makings of a good day for Boris Johnson. TV cameras pointed in his direction, the world’s media hanging off his every word — and the scene set in the House of Commons chamber for a new Brexit purity test.
But the world has moved on since 2019, and things did not go according to plan.
Delivering his defense on Wednesday afternoon at the Commons privileges committee hearing on Partygate, Johnson seemed impatient and tetchy. His pleas of innocence rang hollow in the eyes of his interrogators. Behind him, his lawyer sighed and rolled his eyes.
Along the corridor that same afternoon, in the House of Commons chamber for the vote on the “Stormont brake” — a central part of Rishi Sunak’s new Brexit deal — only 21 of Johnson’s 355 fellow Tory MPs followed him through the “no”0 lobby to reject the deal outright.
Johnson has always been one of the party’s most transactional politicians, able to embrace endless contradictions when needed to produce a result. But his party colleagues, taught through long and bitter experience never to underestimate him, are starting to believe that his value to them may finally be through.
One long-serving Conservative MP said: “I think the general consensus [after the committee] was: Thank God he isn’t PM.”
Johnson’s announcement on the morning of the vote that he would oppose the Stormont Brake was timed to cause maximum pain for Sunak — late enough that it was difficult to counter, but with several hours for others to rally behind him.
Johnson’s brief Downing Street successor Liz Truss made her own intention clear to vote “no” shortly afterward, in a move that seemed calculated to add to a sense of momentum behind opposition to the deal.
While senior Brexiteers insisted Johnson’s team had not actively coordinated such a strategy, his allies were nevertheless talking up the prospect of a growing rebellion against Sunak’s signature deal to anyone who would listen.
The government whipping operation was described as “low-key” by one Tory rebel, who insisted the lowly tally of rebels should be seen as a blow to Sunak. Another claimed the whips were handing out permission slips to skip the vote “like confetti” — allowing those who might have struggled to support the deal to quietly abstain instead.
In the end, the chief function of the vote was to offer a handy public list of those Tory MPs who remain implacably imposed to Sunak and his attempts to wrap up Brexit. We now know they number fewer than two dozen.
Former Brexit Minister David Jones, a deputy chair of the once-feared European Reserach Group, expressed disappointment in the outcome, blaming a broader Brexit fatigue.
“The problem is people are tired of it, frankly, almost physically tired of it,” he admitted. “Everybody wants the whole thing to go away.”
The passage into law of one of the central components of the Windsor Framework — with comparatively little fuss — lets still more air out of the over-pumped tyres of Brexit, and leaves Johnson, whose career has been defined in opposition to Brussels, adrift from his leadership, his party — and the wider country too.
Thanks but no thanks
“There is very little appetite for his return,” said Jemma Connor of the polling firm YouGov, pointing to surveys from October which showed 72 percent of people thought he should not come back as party leader, including a majority of Conservative voters.
She observed that survey was conducted at a time of huge discontent with Truss as PM, when a Johnson revival might have seemed more appetizing.
Since then Sunak has proved himself far more popular, and “so it’s likely that what little appetite there was for a Boris return has diminished further.”
It seems the old electoral magic — once Johnson’s central appeal to Tory MPs — has evaporated.
Rob Semple, a former chair of the powerful National Conservative Convention of local association leaders, said it was time for Conservatives to “move on.”
Johnson now finds himself buffeted by two recent flops — his decision not to go up against Sunak for the leadership in October, and Wednesday’s damp squib of a rebellion — while waiting to learn if the Partygate inquiry will lead to the ordeal of a by-election in his Uxbridge seat.
A further challenge to Sunak’s authority this side of a general election — widely expected in 2024 — now seems improbable, and even beyond that his route back is unclear.
Electoral success for Sunak next year — against the odds — would make the PM a Tory hero and leave even less space for a Johnson revival. And a crushing Tory defeat would leave Johnson, at best, scrapping with younger opponents to lead a rump Tory Party in opposition — or at worst, would see him defeated by Labour in his own marginal seat, and out of job.
But if none of these options look appetizing for Johnson, allies insist it would be foolhardy to count him out altogether.
He continues to stand for a brand of Tory populism which Sunak may struggle to emulate, in spite of the PM’s best efforts to burnish his right-wing credentials with an immigration crackdown and the appointment, in Lee Anderson, of an outspoken deputy party chair.
“Boris remains an electoral asset,” insisted Mark Jenkinson, Conservative MP for the red wall seat of Workington, particularly in Brexit-supporting areas, and among “electors that activists like me have tried to reach for many years.”
That sentiment may permit Johnson to go on serving as a lightning rod for unhappiness in this wing of the party, at least until another figurehead emerges to perform the same function.
Reports that Johnson’s supporters have been briefing against rising star Kemi Badenoch, the current business secretary — highly rated by the right of the party in last summer’s leadership contest — suggest he’s not ready to surrender the mantle of “king over the water” just yet.
As one senior Conservative councilor put it: “You can’t write Boris off, ever, until he’s in his grave.” This week just made his resurrection more unlikely.
Emilio Casalicchio and Eleni Courea contributed reporting.