Prime Ministers always enjoy de jure authority – over their country, over their party. But it is an office that is impossible to maintain if you lose de facto authority. And for any Prime Minister, the moment when the game is up is the moment where a gulf opens between the two. Last night, Boris Johnson stared into that abyss.
One hundred of Johnson’s own MPs decided and declared, yesterday, that he is not best placed to make important decisions in the midst of a national calamity. He won his legislation to oblige entrants to nightclubs to show proof either of vaccination or of a recent negative COVID test. But he won thanks to the opposition. More of his MPs voted against the plan that he had personally begged them to support – at a last-minute meeting of the 1922 Committee – than the make up of his majority. This is both symbolic and meaningful.
It is symbolic because it shows just how much faith and trust has collapsed when it comes to Johnson’s leadership. Lined up together against him was an astonishing array – Remainers, Mayites, Spartan Brexiteers, old rebels and a Tory MP who was elected just weeks ago. This was not the usual suspects. This was mass unrest. It was like the scenes on the streets of Soviet capitals when the regime fell – masses of cheering crowds tearing down statues of Stalin without deciding what should come next or instead. As with the fall of the USSR, however, one does wonder about the longevity of that glorious, jubilant unity once the dust settles and the rage has been expressed.
It is meaningful because this rebellion squeezes Boris Johnson into a very tight spot indeed. He relied on Labour votes last night. Tory Prime Ministers can’t make a habit of doing that. And the backbenchers have sent a clear message to him; that further restrictions are not guaranteed their support and that efforts to secure them risk ending his premiership. As Omicron rips through the country – strangely disinterested in the opinions of Tory MPs – Johnson is left fighting it with one hand tied behind his back. This means that the politics of this are, now, a potential public health issue. That’s a crisis by anyone’s reckoning.
Were it not all so serious then one imagine Sir Keir would be enjoying himself tremendously today. The Prime Minister on the brink of self-destruction, the Government split, Labour seen to be proactively delivering what the public (to the chagrin of libertarians) repeatedly and insistently say they want. And all on the back of a shadow cabinet reshuffle which has been vindicated by the almost universal admiration expressed for the steady, measured and assured performance of new Shadow Health Secretary, Wes Streeting.
But the thing is, it is all very serious. And Boris Johnson is not staring into that abyss on his own. He’s dragged all of us there, to the edge, with him. Don’t look down!