Studying the headless chicken entrails
A possible vote of no confidence
I value journalism. Really, I do. But sometimes I must point out its failings. Today is one such day. For over a period of many months, journalists have not distinguished themselves in interpreting what is going on in the Conservative party just now, though all the evidence is there for those who wish to look for it. There’s been a regular cycle of speculation about a vote of no confidence, followed by declarations that Boris Johnson has got away with it, usually with some reference to greased piglets. Yet here we are, for about the fourth time, with speculation about a leadership contest at fever pitch.
Even now, some (very good) journalists are still moaning about how Delphic some Conservative MPs are being. That’s very unfair on those Conservative MPs. Given the parameters within which they are working, they are being clear and, for that matter, very sensible.
You will have gathered that I intend to nail my colours to the mast. I am prepared to look pretty silly pretty quickly if I am wrong, but on this occasion I don’t think it’s very likely that I am, at least not about some of the more important features.
First, let’s look at the various camps. And in fact, there’s the first mistake that journalists are making, thinking that there are various camps. There is in fact only one camp, Boris Johnson’s. There are a lot of Conservative MPs who are not wholly in that camp and some who are completely outside it, but there is no rival camp as such, just a lot of unhappy MPs. If this is a coup, it’s a wiki-coup.
That’s led to a very simple dynamic. Conservative MPs have responded individually to the Partygate fiasco in response to outrage from constituents or, in some cases, with little prompting from journalists’ questions. Journalists have picked up on their unhappiness and speculated about votes of no confidence. In response, Number 10 has made co-ordinated efforts to head such votes off. It has much better access to the journalists of national newspapers than the individual MPs have, and since there is no rival camp putting out co-ordinated briefings, journalists have each time too readily accepted Number 10’s assertions that the crisis has passed. That was probably forgivable once or twice, but we’re well beyond that.
The dynamic has not really changed very much in six months. Since Partygate broke in December, Conservative MPs have been hearing at high volume just how upset the public was and is. Some Conservative MPs, hard though it might be to believe, see it as a matter of principle. Some concluded quickly that Boris Johnson was shot as a political force, others have been using the time bought by the police investigation and Sue Gray’s inquiry to see whether the public would calm down about it. At no point, however, did the problem go away. It was simply being played out.
As recently as last week we were being told that the Sue Gray report had let Boris Johnson off the hook. I am completely at a loss to see why journalists reached that conclusion: it can only really be explained by their having swallowed uncritically the line being spun by the one organised camp. The House of Commons was in that debate more or less empty of Conservative MPs. They were doing what they had done throughout this period, watching silently and judging.
Since then, seemingly every day one or two MPs have made their deep concern with Boris Johnson known. Some have confirmed that they have submitted letters to Sir Graham Brady; some, such as Jeremy Wright and Andrea Leadsom, have not. Because Parliament is in recess, it is quite possible that Sir Graham Brady is sitting on the requisite 54 letters from MPs requiring a vote of no confidence to be held. There are reports of Number 10 ringing round MPs to shore up support, which suggests they share this view.
It’s easy to see why unhappy Conservative MPs would put a letter in. The Prime Minister’s ratings are awful, the reception on the doorstep for him must be sulphurous, he’s shown absolutely no sincere contrition and all of his actions since show that the lesson he’s learned is to make it easier to do as he pleases in future without detection or consequence.
What might be staying their hands? Two things. First, an unhappy Conservative MP won’t want to trigger a vote at a time when Boris Johnson might win it. A wounded Boris Johnson still in power would be the worst of all worlds. And secondly, that unhappy MP won’t want a worse replacement.
So let’s go back to those supposedly-Delphic MPs. Both Jeremy Wright and Andrea Leadsom put out statements. Both were long on analysis and short on next steps. People focussed on the next steps. They really should have focussed on the analysis, which is more illuminating.
Jeremy Wright’s statement is worth quoting at length because there’s a lot in it if you choose to read it carefully. As befits a former attorney general, he took a legalistic approach. He tells us:
“I consider the charge of misleading Parliament to be so serious it must lead to resignation if it is established. I repeat my view that misleading the House of Commons must mean telling it something that you know to be false or do not believe to be true, rather than telling it something you believe to be true but which is later found not to be the case. The question now therefore is whether the new evidence we have disproves the Prime Minister’s claim that he genuinely and reasonably believed the events he attended were permissible under the rules…
“I have seen nothing in Sue Gray’s report to change my view that, at the time he made relevant statements to the House of Commons, he could genuinely and reasonably have believed that he did not break rules on 19th June 2020…
“Is there other evidence then which establishes that the Prime Minister must have realised that rules were broken in Downing Street before he told the House of Commons that, as far as he was aware, they were not? … It does not automatically follow therefore that because officials in Downing Street, even senior officials, knew or suspected that gatherings would be against the rules at the time, the Prime Minister himself did. Finally, Sue Gray does not conclude that the Prime Minister must have known of rule breaking when it happened by any other means.
“I cannot therefore be sure from the evidence I have seen that the Prime Minister lied to Parliament. Natural justice, to which we are all entitled, requires that it must be demonstrated by the evidence that the Prime Minister did knowingly mislead, not that he is assumed to have done so unless he can prove otherwise. The Privileges Committee of the House of Commons is still to investigate the issue of potential misleading of Parliament of course, and it may be that they are shown evidence not yet presented. I remain open to changing my view on this question in the light of their report when it is produced, but I do not believe the case for deliberate misleading of Parliament by the Prime Minister has as yet been made, to the necessary standard, such that his resignation is essential on that ground.”
Having given the Prime Minister the benefit of the doubt, he then sticks the boot in:
“I cannot be sure that the Prime Minister knowingly misled the House of Commons, but in my view there is clear evidence he has been negligent. I believe he could and should have done more to satisfy himself that the assurances he had been given, and that he was in turn giving Parliament, were indeed correct.”
“I fear too that these events have done real and lasting damage to the reputation not just of this Government but to the institutions and authority of Government more generally. That matters because it is sadly likely that a Government will again need to ask the citizens of this country to follow rules it will be difficult to comply with and to make sacrifices which will be hard to bear, in order to serve or preserve the greater good. The collective consequences of those citizens declining to do so may again be severe. It is of fundamental importance then that, as and when those circumstances occur again, people are willing to do as their Government asks them to. There can be no more central or significant duty of the Prime Minister’s office in Downing Street than to support and enhance the effectiveness of Government policy at times of crisis, in a country where we are broadly governed by consent. What we now know happened in Downing Street during months of Covid restrictions imposed by Government policy makes that consent less likely, as many will say that if senior Government officials don’t keep to the rules, why should I? Putting that right matters hugely to the essence of Government authority and to the effectiveness of Government policy, and I cannot see that the moving on of civil servants or apologies, however heartfelt, will succeed in doing so. Accountability and restoring faith in good Government require something more, both to safeguard future public compliance with Government instructions when it counts, and to allow the present Government to deliver the important legislation it has introduced, including vital changes to social care funding, energy security and online regulation. It now seems to me that the Prime Minister remaining in office will hinder those crucial objectives. I have therefore, with regret, concluded that, for the good of this and future Governments, the Prime Minister should resign.”
I’ve quoted this statement at length because I want you to see exactly what is going on. Jeremy Wright reaches the conclusion that the Prime Minister has not yet been shown to have intentionally misled Parliament.
His argument is, to be kind, kind to the Prime Minister. When proving any point, the matrix of facts must be considered in context, and that context includes the familiarity of the law as it applied from time to time. For example, Boris Johnson could not argue that he didn’t know that you drive on the left in Britain: it’s something no one would credibly believe. So the question that Jeremy Wright doesn’t really look at is whether Boris Johnson could credibly argue that when he gave Parliament assurances that all guidance was followed completely in Number 10 he didn’t know what the Covid laws and guidance were or about the social gatherings in Downing Street. That’s a question which it is very hard to give the PM the benefit of the doubt on, given they were laws and guidance that he had promulgated and promoted and given that he was well aware of many of the social gatherings.
Anyway, whether or not Jeremy Wright’s argument is kind to the Prime Minister, it achieves one important thing for Jeremy Wright. It absolves him of any absolute immediate requirement to help remove the Prime Minister. Having done this, Jeremy Wright then explains, in measured but damning terms, why he nevertheless thinks the Prime Minister should resign.
And there the statement ends. He does not say what process should be followed from here, he does not say whether or not he has put in a letter. That is surely deliberate. So who is the intended audience?
It seems to me fairly clear that the main intended audience is other concerned Conservative MPs. If there is still no co-ordinated anti-Johnson camp, this makes complete sense. Jeremy Wright is signalling to them that he believes that the Prime Minister should be replaced. Presumably others who feel similarly will have contacted him to discuss how best to achieve this. The rest of us are not intended to be let in on this discussion. And that’s entirely sensible from his viewpoint.
Andrea Leadsom’s statement is substantially very similar. She gives the Prime Minister his due, credits him with being personally shocked by Sue Gray’s findings, accepts that his apology was humble and takes a minimal view of his personal breaches. She thus excuses herself of an immediate obligation to act. Having done so, she then spells out that “there have been unacceptable failings of leadership that cannot be tolerated and are the responsibility of the Prime Minister.” A little less discreet than Jeremy Wright, she then states: “Each of my Conservative MP colleagues and I must now decide individually on what is the right course of action that will restore confidence in our government.” Again, she does not state whether she has submitted a letter and proposes no course of action. Like Jeremy Wright, she seems to be advertising to other dissatisfied Conservative MPs that the time has come to coordinate, maximising wriggle room for now.
If I am correct, we can make further deductions. Jeremy Wright and Andrea Leadsom probably have not put a letter in to Sir Graham Brady — and they’ll probably be advising anyone who speaks to them to hold off for now. They’ll want to wait until a workable plan is in place. That presumably means getting a reasonably reliable headcount for the vote that would follow and identifying a credible replacement Prime Minister. If Sir Graham Brady has yet to get 54 letters by Monday, we might wait quite a while for that total to be reached as a rival camp gets properly set up.
Their problem is that the trigger point of 54 letters to Sir Graham Brady may already have been reached. If so, they may be out of time to draw up their plan. Things could be about to get very chaotic indeed.
Let’s assume that Sir Graham Brady strolls out onto College Green on Monday morning and solemnly announces that there is to be a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister. How might that go? There are currently 359 Conservative MPs taking the whip (two MPs have the whip suspended at present). So the finishing post for both sides is 180.
Partygate is a subject that most Conservative MPs have been required to comment on, so we already have a fair idea of what views they have. I’ve been keeping tabs on this for some time. At my last tally, 45 were apparently hostile, 53 were apparently icy, 46 were apparently cool, 56 were neutral, 43 were unknown and 116 were apparently friendly. Of course, MPs might change their minds (perhaps with the inducement of patronage), might feel that the time required different actions from that which they’d previously indicated or might simply have been expressing themselves histrionically one way or another. We can deal with this by using rough and ready adjustments.
Let’s assume that 90% of those who had been hostile would vote against Boris Johnson, 80% of those who were icy would do likewise and 70% of the cool MPs would vote against him. Let’s assume that 20% of those who had given expressions of loyalty might in private vote against him.
What of the neutrals and unknowns? I would lump these together, then divide them into two groups: those who know their own minds on this subject but chose not to disclose it and those who blancmange-like have not made their minds up. I have no idea how many are in each group, so let’s divide this group into two equal parts. The ones who know their own minds are likely to break against Boris Johnson, I think — say 60/40. The ones who don’t are likely to be won round by his team with cajoling — say 40/60.
You can of course make whatever assumptions you like, but those are the numbers I worked with. I chose them before seeing what result I’d end up with. I suggest you do the same if you are going to make your own tallies.
Totting this all up and rounding appropriately, I get to 186–173 against Boris Johnson. Obviously there are very low degrees of confidence in this. It looks quite likely to be quite close if the vote is next week.
And if the vote isn’t next week? Then at that point I expect that the apparent start of proper organising among unhappy Conservative MPs will make a difference. Oddly, Boris Johnson’s best chance may be if the vote does indeed come early.