It says everything about Boris Johnson’s current standing within the Tory party that Theresa May’s only reference to him today prompted ridicule, not fear.
When the Prime Minister paid tribute to “the passion the former Foreign Secretary has demonstrated” in his post, she had to pause while MPs on all sides of the House of Commons laughed at the remark. Nicky Morgan, a backbench Remainer and now a May loyalist, joked “with who?”
That doesn’t mean that Johnson’s resignation didn’t trouble Downing Street. Losing not just one but two senior Cabinet ministers risks undermining her own authority. Yet until more MPs follow up by submitting letters of no confidence in May, she won’t become genuinely worried about Boris’s departure.
And the PM is digging in. When her spokesman was asked if she intended to fight any such confidence vote, he replied tersely: “Yes”. The main issue is whether Johnson can mobilise enough rebels to rally behind him.
Although he retains a hard core of followers, he has failed to connect with new Tory MPs from the 2015 and 2017 election intakes. And even during the 2016 Tory leadership race, his alleged support of more than 70 MPs never materialised. His standing is even lower now.
Johnson certainly sees himself as the ‘conscience’ of Brexit. He can credibly argue that he was the most popular figure in the 2016 EU referendum campaign, and he and his Big Bus did more to deliver the Leave vote than any attempted Russian interference. In recent years, he was so popular among the Tory grassroots he could stop the party conference in its tracks, his every meeting packed to the rafters.
Boris’ legacy lingered like a ghost at the feast, when May echoed his infamous bus claim that the NHS would get £350m a week. There would be a ’Brexit priority” of extra cash for the health services, she told MPs.
But now that Brexit is a grinding reality of messy compromise, he faces the stark fact that his popularity has plunged not just among the public but also among Conservative members, and crucially among its MPs. He lacks the support needed to get onto the ballot paper for a Tory leadership contest, trailing behind both Michael Gove, the man who knifed him two years ago, and rising star Sajid Javid.
One very senior party source told HuffPost that the crucial threshold of 48 MPs needed for a confidence vote has not been passed. Even if it is passed at some point soon, May thinks she can count on fears of a Jeremy Corbyn government to keep her MPs in line.
And hovering over everything is the No.10 belief that Johnson has done more than anyone to trash his own reputation in the past two years: the gaffe that left a British woman in an Iranian jail to his lack of backbone on Heathrow; fears that he leaks sensitive intelligence information; his “fuck business” attack on his party’s trump card on the economy. At each turn, he has blundered his way through his time at the Foreign Office.
Johnson and David Davis were absent from the Commons chamber today, though they can still do some political damage when they make their resignation speeches in the next few days. Johnson’s resignation letter was withering, attacking May for heading towards “a semi-Brexit” that would leave the UK as a “colony” of the EU.
Still, it was Davis’s resignation that resonated more with Brexiteer MPs than Johnson’s. Eurosceptic MPs demanded that May publish Davis’s own alternative ‘White Paper’ on future trade with the EU. No one got up to defend Johnson. It may be that at least the former Brexit Secretary’s departure had a real consequence: in ensuring that Brussels won’t demand further concessions from the UK.
Even that may have been academic. One of the most fascinating things the PM said today was that she had received ‘indications’ from EU leaders that her soft Brexit plan could be workable. European Commission sources add that they have always been clear that an extensive free trade agreement is possible and much more preferable to a ‘no deal’ disaster.
Johnson and Davis’s own jobs were not what mattered, May said today. “People talk about things in this House, but it’s the jobs of our constituents we should be concerned about,” she said. As he finally left his official residence off the Mall, Johnson knew that backbench MPs were waiting for his signal before launching any leadership contest.
After her snap election debacle last year, former Chancellor George Osborne described May as “dead woman walking”. Yet she’s survived six Cabinet resignations in eight months, got her way in crunch Commons votes and carried on stubbornly running the country. With no obvious replacement, many MPs think she will stumble on until after the UK has formally quit the EU next March.
A ‘Zombie PM’, May is both dead and undead at the same time. Even if May loses her leadership, it is likely to be someone other than the ex-Foreign Secretary who succeeds her. The greatest irony is that unless he can rally many more troops behind him, Boris Johnson is the one whose political career may finally be six feet under.