A smug self-satisfaction is detectable a mile off, but it is ill-placed. Grandees and those who assume they are grandees may sneer at the Boris Johnson ministry and call the Prime Minister all sorts of names, some of which may be justified, but to treat him as a temporary annoyance to be picked off like a scab is self-delusion. A former Chancellor of the Exchequer speaks in the House as if he still commanded its hushed attention, and his equally displaced colleagues gather as if they were a cabinet in waiting. They are not.
It is a vision which suits a former minister’s sense of self-worth: to pretend that Boris Johnson and his team are a small, insurgent gang occupying for a time seats too big for him, and that in time common sense and the natural order will reassert themselves. Then when the playful cheekiness has run its course, they will step up again to the places ordained for them since the beginning of the age. In that picture, all they have to do is remain apart, aloof, and wait for the invitation to return to much acclaim.
It is vanity. None has the right to rule: not they nor even their party.
Boris Johnson commands the support of the great majority of his colleagues. and of the wider party. His is not the temporary insurgency but the Leader of the Conservative Party, and it is proving popular nationally.
A self-justifying point now by the blue rebels is that Boris Johnson, by removing one wing of the party is changing its nature. Philip Hammond has gone as far as to say that an “extreme right-wing faction” is taking over. However there are no facts to support this statement. Boris Johnson has not torn a wing off the party: only 21 MPs were cast out and they are mostly true-blue Thatcherites, like Boris Johnson, and several less liberal than him. No MP had the whip withdrawn for being the wrong shade of blue, nor for merely voting against the government: the whip was withdrawn for disabling the government by handing control of the business of the House to others. Gelding a Conservative government earned the boot, not a label. The Conservatives in the House who still have the whip are a more diverse bunch than those who lost it. The most liberal Tory members are still under the whip: they did not vote to hand Mr Corbyn control of the House not to hand Brussels our national negotiating position. The most liberal Tory members did not conspire with foreign powers to disable their own government’s position.
A more sensible view might be expected form an old stager. Kenneth Clarke is one of the few senior Conservatives always to have supported the ambitions of the Projet européen so his disdain is expected. His expression for Boris Johnson was as “a rather knockabout sort of character, who’s got this bizarre crash-it-through philosophy”. In many decades of distinguished service in politics, Mr Clarke should be aware of something the rest of us, outside the bubble, know – that if you stand still and wait, you do not get to the finishing line, and the world will move on without you, or over you, but if you crash ahead then the world must run to catch you up. His old order is indolence: cast it out and crash through to achieve, just as Margaret Thatcher did.
Voting against the government line is all part of parliamentary politics and a fine Tory tradition, but trying to overthrow a Conservative government’s authority, trying to discredit its members and suggesting that a loony Marxist could step in to help: those are beyond the pale. (It is like those French Royalists who assisted the Jacobins to attack the Girondins, regardless of the consequence, that they placed their own heads in the guillotine.)
As to those few of the rebels who travelled to Europe and openly conspired with a hostile foreign power to overthrow British interests, who could have believed, before this current political meltdown, that any patriotic Conservative could even conceive of doing so?
All this is incomprehensible unless the rebels really believe that they are the government in waiting, ready to be called back, because if they were then they have Sir John Harington’s verse in their minds:
Treason doth never prosper: what’s the reason?
Why, if it prosper, none dare call it treason
They are a small group. They cannot prosper.
- Making a Success of Brexit and Reforming the EU by Roger Bootle
- Brexit: Its Necessity and Challenge by Tony Kosuge
- Brexit: How Britain Will Leave Europe by Denis MacShane
- Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union by Harold D. Clarke, Matthew Goodwin and Paul Whiteley
- Brexit: How Britain Left Europe by Denis MacShane
- Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution by Vernon Bogdanor