Blog: Sunak wins his Brexit vote and Boris fights for his future: Not a bad day for Rishi, reckons Andrew Marr – LBC

Sunak wins his Brexit vote and Boris fights for his future: Not a bad day for Rishi, reckons Andrew Marr

22 March 2023, 18:17

Boris Johnson thinks today was a good day for Rishi Sunak.

“So this was a huge day for politics. We had the theatre of Boris Johnson defending himself against the charge of lying to parliament, plus, and I think this is more important – a vote on Rishi Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal in which his most fervent Tory opponents lined up against him,” Andrew said at the start of Tonight with Andrew Marr.

“It was a kind of clan gathering of the Tory rebel right… Boris Johnson himself, Liz Truss, and with Iain Duncan Smith, that made three former Tory leaders, plus former cabinet ministers such as Jacob Rees Mogg, Priti Patel and Simon Clarke.

“A rebel army made up of lots of major generals, waving plumes and glittering epaulettes. But interestingly not many ordinary MPs, not many footsoldiers, behind them.

“What, tonight, do you really need to know about all of this? In the end, just 22 Tories joined what isn’t exactly a split or breakaway in the Tory party but a kind of grand disaffection with Rishi Sunak.

“Granted there were also 48 abstentions which means that if all those people refused to back him on a day-to-day basis, he would be in deep doo-dah.

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“Yet overall, I think pretty good news for the Prime Minister. Ever since he got the job we’ve been saying that the big question is whether the Tory Party in Parliament, with its ingrained habit of rebellion, will actually allow him to exercise authority – will allow him the voting strength and confidence to be a national leader?

“And I think today shows that the answer is yes. To be sure, his real working majority is much less than Boris Johnson’s was when he won power in 2019.

“On a handful of issues, mainly involving Brexit, he might not be able to do everything he wants. But for ordinary, day to day business Sunak’s majority looks plenty to carry him through to an election at a time of his choosing.

“Of course this right-wing disaffection might grow, particularly if there’s bad local election results later this spring. But it looks pretty incoherent as a gathering; who, with so many chiefs and so few Indians, will actually lead internal opposition to Rishi Sunak?

“An obvious answer might once have been Boris Johnson but frankly, after his long, techy evidence in front of the Commons Privileges Committee this afternoon, I don’t think that’s going to happen. Johnson didn’t enjoy himself and nor did the committee.

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“Watching them try to corner him was like watching someone trying to pick up an agitated python with buttery fingers or pin down a hummingbird.”

“But although committee chairwoman Harriet Harman said they left their party allegiances at the committee door and were serving Parliament itself, there is of course a raw political aspect to all of this. They are out to get him – as Johnson himself plaintively pointed out.

“The basic argument of the committee was pretty simple: there were the rules, there’s the photographic and testimony evidence of you breaking them; so obviously you did lie to Parliament when you said the rules were followed at all times. End of story.

“To defend himself, Johnston used a variety of tactics. But he was at his most impressive when he made more human, explanatory arguments about why he thought that even if the rules had been bent in No10, they’d all been trying very hard and were only human.

“Pressed repeatedly by the sceptical Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin about why he thought the gatherings with speeches and drinks were necessary for work purposes, he made himself sound like someone who wanted to be a proper leader.

“And he had one special argument which was that the the rules on social distancing did use the phrase “whenever possible”. Bozza then used “wherever possible” as a kind of magic get out-of-jail-free key to be flourished on every occasion.

“Now, this was an evidence session and we can only really judge how it went, by the expressions and attitude of the MPs questioning the former prime minister, but they didn’t seem impressed by his verbal dodging and diving.

“He lost his cool a couple of times and mentioned the names of officials he shouldn’t have, and in general, if I were him, I wouldn’t be leaving the room tonight feeling flushed with victory. We’ll see.

“Will the committee vote to get him suspended from Parliament for long enough to force a by-election? Frankly I doubt that, though it’s possible.

“But mainly after this, I don’t see him as the Tories’ great lost leader marshalling troops for a return to power. As I said, not such a bad day for Rishi Sunak all in all.”

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