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BOris Johnson beware. Since Britain became a democracy in 1928, its prime ministers have been expelled or kicked out of Downing Street rather than leaving of their own free will. The one clear exception to the rule is Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 announced his retirement, having won a massive majority two years earlier, and then rid the country of its scandal-ridden pro-German monarch.

Each of Baldwin’s successors, except Harold Wilson, who might have lasted longer had he not resigned before illness and exhaustion overwhelmed him, resigned after losing a general election (Churchill, Attlee, Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown) or lose the confidence, or at least test the patience, of their parliamentary colleagues (Churchill, Eden, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May).

Given, then, that ejection from the inside rather than the outside is by no means uncommon, Johnson certainly has cause for concern. Never as amazing as many imagine, his standing with the public is not only lower than it has ever been, it is lower than that enjoyed by many – indeed, quite possibly all – of his predecessors.

The Prime Minister is not very reliable. He is not considered competent. He’s not even popular anymore. And we would find much the same if we scientifically polled Tory MPs at Westminster. They will compulsively read polls which, as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite, show Labor taking a sustained lead not just on voting intentions but on some of the key issues that help decide the election . The invaluable temperature taking of the party base by the ConservativeHome website suggests they are considerably less impressed with Johnson than they were before and considerably more impressed with many of his colleagues.

Given that so many of the underlying factors associated with a party getting shot by a Prime Minister seem to be in play, one could have been forgiven for assuming that Johnson receiving a fixed penalty notice for partygate would have lit the paper blue touch.

And yet. And yet. Nothing to see here. At last count, around 80 Tory MPs had voiced their support for the Prime Minister, apparently seeing nothing wrong with him breaking laws he himself made and misleading Parliament about it. So far only three MPs have called him on terms to leave since news of him and his chancellor was fined last Tuesday, while the only government member to resign in protest sits in the Lords, not the Commons.

Admittedly, all of this leaves well over 250 Tory MPs who have opted to keep the schtum, many of whom, whether as junior ministers or lower-level bag-bearers, constitute the “payroll vote” whose members are forced to toe the party line. But anyone who hopes their silence is ominous, as opposed to merely spineless, is likely to be disappointed.

The reasons for this, according to the majority of Westminster observers, are mainly circumstantial. But is that the whole story? We are told, for example, that even Johnson’s most jaded colleagues have their doubts after watching him once again strut their stuff on the world stage, with Ukraine celebrating in the media (columnists and editors of the conservative-friendly press) with the “Don’t they know there is a war?logic to keep it in place. Yet, as others have pointed out of two world wars and a Gulf War, this fallacy has not held MPs’ hands so far.

We’re also told that the recent fall from grace of Rishi Sunak, combined with lingering doubts about his fiercest rival, Liz Truss, makes a leadership race less likely since, according to the argument, there is no consensus on who would take over. To which the obvious rejoinder is: when has such a consensus ever been required before? If you’re stuck in a burning building with only one escape route, you don’t wait to find out what’s on the other side to push open the door.

Then there’s the argument that, especially now that we worry about our household finances, partygate is old news. It’s even suggested that we’ve all spent so much time discussing whether the police would end up fining Johnson that his breaking of the law is effectively ‘accounted for’, as are so many of his other lies. , faults and weaknesses have been over the years. . The problem with this argument is that for every poll cited to claim that the public wants to “move on”, another can be found that shows they are still very angry about it all and, by a substantial majority, wants the Prime Minister to leave.

And now there is Rwanda. Apparently, only a radical right-wing populist like Johnson could contemplate something so bold, especially if the liberal left falls headlong into such an obvious elephant trap. but is it? Believe it from someone who has spent far too long studying the issue: Conservative governments have always stooped to conquer immigration. That’s what they do.

So we must look beyond pure contingency to the deeper reasons – some rational, some less so – why Tory MPs cling to Johnson despite what the polls, their consciences and some of the bravest souls in their own side, might tell them otherwise.

We could, to begin with, turn to “rational choice” approaches to politics. For example, one of those bravest souls, Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein, thinks Johnson should leave but doubts he will, citing what he calls “a market failure in political coups. because, although the majority of a party’s MPs can benefit from such a move, the costs, if it fails, are concentrated on the minority brave enough to mount it.

Another explanation rooted in rational choice would focus on the fact that Johnson, since he has few, if any, fixed opinions and is now severely weakened, is relatively easy to push and pull in the direction that best suited for colleagues and the media. A planning reform that could actually see enough houses built where they are needed most? No thanks. Additional measures to fight against the Covid? I do not think so. Net zero? Not so fast. Spend enough to really address social care or the backlog of the NHS or the chronic shortfall in local authority finances or the pandemic’s blow to children’s education? Forget that. Any new leader, on the other hand, by being given a new mandate, would be much less easy to manipulate.

Then there are the cognitive biases dear to behavioral economists, in particular the sunk cost fallacy, which forces us to continue investing in projects (and people) in which we have already invested resources even when the possibility of ‘return on investment is slipping further and further away, a trend exacerbated by the fear that giving it all up as a bad job, especially if we’ve previously publicly defended our initial choice, would be tantamount to admitting we’ve been a bit of a fool .

But maybe the explanation is even more psychological? Gratitude to Johnson for helping the Conservatives win a large majority in 2019 is one thing, but gratitude is normally one of the most perishable quantities in party politics. “What have you done for me lately?” is normally the question to which leaders must provide a convincing answer. And in any case, does this gratitude really authorize the Prime Minister to exploit and abuse the trust of his supporters time and time again?

There is therefore arguably more than a hint of co-dependency in the way Johnson’s ministerial colleagues, by publicly defending him and putting his interests ahead of their own dignity and conscience, effectively allow him to continue to behave. in a way that, from the outside anyway, would appear to be harmful to them. Moreover, to keep it there, whatever your politics, is surely to destroy the idea that accountability should exist not only in elections, but also between them. Ultimately, however, it seems to me that the ability of a totally compromised Prime Minister to maintain the confidence of his colleagues, despite losing public support and becoming a dead weight for his party’s popularity, must involve some degree of wishful thinking.

Indeed, I would say that, like Churchill and Thatcher before him, Johnson has become what we might call a talismanic leader, one who, possessed by powers that sometimes seem superhuman, even supernatural, to his friends and enemies, whatever whatever the current evidence to the contrary, supposedly seeing their group through the worst of times and in the sunny highlands.

A word of warning, however. As Churchill and Thatcher themselves learned the hard way, the magic is fading. In a hint the Prime Minister himself may appreciate, talismanic amulets worn in Roman times sometimes bore the Latin inscription felix uterus – “good luck to the user”. As we head into local elections and a by-election in Wakefield, both of which could spell serious trouble for the Tories, Johnson and his parliamentary and media fan clubs are likely to need it.

Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and co-author of The 2019 UK General Election



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