Inside the week that saw Boris Johnson’s downfall

In a pivotal few days, the ex-PM, who had swept all before him in the 2019 election and ‘got Brexit done’, found himself with few allies and his influence draining away
<p>Boris Johnson . PHOTO/FILE</p>

Boris Johnson . PHOTO/FILE

More than three decades the prospect of Tory MPs rebelling over Europe struck fear into the hearts of Conservative prime ministers. And for good reason. The premierships of Margaret Thatcher, John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May were all scarred and ultimately destroyed by arguments over the UK’s involvement in the European project.

Last Wednesday, however, something changed. A key vote on the Northern Ireland protocol passed through the House of Commons with ease, as the threat of a large Tory backbench uprising melted away. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was told by the Tory whips even before the vote took place that there was nothing serious to worry about. The debate preceding it had lacked the Tory rancour to which the House of Commons had long become accustomed when discussing European issues.

As per the article by Toby Helm published in Guardian, some hardline Eurosceptics had played up the dangers to Sunak and warned that trouble was brewing. But most minds were elsewhere. Many Maastricht warriors of days gone by, the likes of Bernard Jenkin, who was preoccupied with interrogating Boris Johnson over Partygate, either abstained or backed the government.

In the Commons, long-time EU critics David Davis and Andrea Leadsom went out of their way to praise Sunak’s negotiating success with Brussels, as did many other veteran Eurosceptics. Leadsom described the Sunak deal as “superb” and called for pragmatism. “Let us not make the perfect the enemy of the good: let us move forward as one United Kingdom,” she said.

Johnson’s downfall

Ideological arguments over sovereignty that had obsessed and split the party since the 1980s suddenly seemed not to matter so much. They had run their course. The vast majority of Tory MPs, not to mention the nation, had had enough and wanted to move on.

A notable exception, however, was Johnson. Wednesday was supposed to be the day when the former prime minister and man most responsible for Brexit would mount a comeback on two fronts in the Commons.

First, so his supporters predicted, he would be “vindicated” during a televised appearance before the Commons privileges committee which was to grill him that afternoon over claims that he misled parliament over parties inside Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic. “Bullish Boris up for the fight,” said the Daily Mail on the morning of his appearance.

And second, Johnson’s supporters briefed, he would lead another epic Tory rebellion over Europe the same afternoon, voting against Sunak’s deal in the Commons. In so doing the hope was that he would wound Sunak, the man who had betrayed him by resigning as chancellor, prove he still had strong support on the backbenches, and advance his chances of making a sensational return to No 10. Another ex-prime minister, Liz Truss, also let it be known in advance that she too would vote against.

But when it came, the great rebellion led by the ex-PMs was anything but. It was remarked upon more because of its meagre size (only 20 Tory MPs joined Johnson and Truss in voting against) than for any damage it caused to the current prime minister. “It is over for him,” said one former Tory minister shortly after. “This was Rishi’s moment. The Conservative party has moved on.” Contrary to what Johnson had intended, the result strengthened Sunak no end, demonstrating where authority now lay and drawing a line under the past. A senior government source said: “There was talk beforehand of two ex-prime ministers mustering their troops but we didn’t believe it. The truth was the troops weren’t there. There weren’t the numbers worth speaking of.”

It has unquestionably been a terrible few days for Johnson, worse probably than his exit from No 10 last summer, a period through which, in the minds of many Tories, he managed to retain the status of Brexit hero despite everything.

Now, with evidence mounting of the damage that leaving the EU has done to the economy and the country, many Tory MPs recognise he is no longer the force he was, irrespective of Partygate.

Boris Johnson resigns

Paul Goodman, the former Conservative MP who now edits ConservativeHome, said there was still plenty of residual affection for Johnson at the party’s grassroots, as shown by his website’s surveys of Tory members, “but people now just want to be governed effectively”. The view of most party members was that he should not return as prime minister.

In front of the privileges committee, Johnson had cut an increasingly desperate figure, implausibly arguing that a series of leaving parties for staff at No 10 had been absolutely essential for the running of the country.

Perhaps the most devastating questioning came from Jenkin, Johnson’s fellow Eurosceptic. Jenkin asked Johnson what he would have said at a Covid press conference had he been quizzed as to whether a business could hold “unsocially distanced farewell gatherings” during lockdown. Johnson replied that he would have said it was up to the businesses how to interpret the guidance.

Fall of Boris Johnson

People who remembered being unable to see their dying relatives because of Covid rules were furious. A man who called in to the Nick Ferrari show on LBC broke down in tears, while Mick Hucknall, lead singer of Simply Red, joined a chorus of denunciation on Twitter declaring at 3.13pm that: “While Boris Johnson was having his leaving drinks party, like millions of others, I was disallowed to say goodbye to my dying father-in-law In hospital. You despicable lying BAST*RD!”

Johnson claimed that his advisers told him that all the rules that he himself had made – and daily ordered the nation to obey, to help save lives – had been complied with, despite ample photographic and documentary evidence that the committee had marshalled to demonstrate precisely the contrary. A former Tory minister said he had to stop watching because it became “painful and embarrassing”.

Boris Johnson


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