Many PMs have triumphed after being in the Last Chance Saloon… Boris has to be given that opportunity too, argues author and historian ANDREW ROBERTS
Boris Johnson is clearly drinking in the Last Chance Saloon – an unfortunate metaphor in this case – but historically that has not been a bad place to be.
Nothing concentrates a Prime Minister’s mind better than the thought that he or she nearly lost their job over a crisis. Nothing sharpens a premier better than a close brush with political death.
So, hopefully, it will be with Boris.
Attending a party at 10 Downing Street for 25 minutes during a lockdown – and then obfuscating – is not, historically speaking, an important enough issue upon which a Prime Minister should be forced to resign.
Yes, it showed a paucity of judgment that has understandably outraged many, but it ought not to be anything like enough to end the political career of a Prime Minister who won an 80-seat majority.
When one considers the crimes and misdemeanours of former premiers, for which they did not resign, it helps to put Boris’s party error into perspective.
Neville Chamberlain sold out the Czech people to the Nazis at Munich, wrongly believing that he had averted war. Yet he stayed on as Prime Minister until 4,300 Britons had been killed or wounded in the disastrous Norway campaign.
Clement Attlee survived the Lynskey Tribunal in 1948 which interrogated 60 Ministers, senior civil servants and others about corruption at the heart of government.
Anthony Eden survived every vote to remove him over the Suez Crisis, in which he had misled parliament, and was only later forced to resign because of ill health. Similarly it was ill health rather than the Profumo scandal that forced Harold Macmillan to leave No 10.
These are great and serious issues. A Downing Street party is not.
Boris Johnson is clearly drinking in the Last Chance Saloon – an unfortunate metaphor in this case – but historically that has not been a bad place to be, writes ANDREW ROBERTS
David Lloyd George bought shares in the American Marconi radio company when he had inside information that the British Government was about to make a large investment into its UK offshoot, an egregious act of insider dealing.
Margaret Thatcher authorised the leaking of information damaging to one of her Cabinet Ministers during the Westland affair.
John Major had sex with his colleague Edwina Currie on the Cabinet table. Tony Blair took a £1 million donation from motor racing tycoon Bernie Ecclestone just prior to changing the rules on tobacco advertising in the sport.
Every Prime Minister, each of whom takes dozens of decisions a day, is bound occasionally to get one or two wrong, perhaps even catastrophically, but that does mean they should lose their jobs.
There is also something profoundly decadent about Britain’s obsession over a party that took place in May 2020, when more than 100,000 Russian troops are massing on the Ukrainian border, Chinese fighter jets are probing Taiwanese airspace, and Iran has reportedly returned to enriching uranium for a bomb that, with the right delivery systems, could reach the UK (whom they term ‘the little Satan’).
What must Presidents Putin and Xi, and the mullah leaders, think as they malevolently plot their New World Disorder, of Britain’s politics being entirely taken up with the Prime Minister’s brief attendance at an outdoor gathering?
The historian AJP Taylor wrote a biography of Otto von Bismarck in which he speculated that the great Prussian statesman deliberately created problems for himself for the pleasure of overcoming them.
Sometimes one feels that way about Boris Johnson’s unforced errors. Although the truth is that, had Boris not lost his consigliere Sir Simon Milton – my friend who was his Chief of Staff as London Mayor, and who died of leukaemia aged 49 in 2011 – he would surely have been advised to avoid the party.
What is urgently needed is a new Chief of Staff whom the PM respects and listens to – such as Lady (Simone) Finn, the steely yet sassy deputy Chief of Staff – and who can get a grip on No 10.
There is easily enough time to turn around Conservative fortunes before the next Election. If a week is a long time in politics, the 34 months before the next one has to be called is an absolute eternity.
It is normal for governments to hit mid-term doldrums, but that does not mean that they cannot end up in victory, as the careers of Tony Blair, Margaret Thatcher and others show. The kind of memes being put out about Boris’s party-going might stay funny for a week, but hardly any longer. Anyhow we must not have government-by-meme.
Once this Tory leadership election is over – assuming there even is one – the party needs to look again at the absurdly low figure of 15 per cent of MPs required to trigger a leadership vote. The rule was instituted in 1998 and is not fit for purpose in an organisation that considers itself to be the natural party of government.
After a party has been in power for almost 12 years, as the Tories have been, there will always be 15 per cent of its MPs who have been overlooked for office, or sacked from it, or disappointed or discontented for other reasons. There should be a threshold of at least 25 per cent, thus reflecting a genuine desire for a change.
Regardless, there is always something profoundly unattractive about the Tory party in Parliament during a leadership struggle.
‘We are all sharks circling, and waiting, for traces of blood to appear in the water,’ wrote the late Tory grandee Alan Clark about an earlier contest. That is the side of the party that will be exposed at a time when party disunity damages electoral prospects more than almost anything else.
Attending a party at 10 Downing Street for 25 minutes during a lockdown – and then obfuscating – is not, historically speaking, an important enough issue upon which a Prime Minister should be forced to resign, writes ANDREW ROBERTS
Indeed, the best comment over the current row over claims about backbenchers being blackmailed by whips was made by Sir Nicholas Soames, who was an MP for 36 years, and who tweeted: ‘Goodness me! What fragile plants we seem to have in Parliament today. Apparently they are being brutally whipped. #trulypathetic.’
I have seen MPs replying in robust Anglo-Saxon language to whips who tried to threaten them, and that is how it should be. To whine to the media and secretly record colleagues shows a lack of moral fibre typical of modern politicians.
If Boris Johnson had sold all the gold in the Bank of England at a ludicrously knockdown price, like Gordon Brown did, or signed Britain up to an ‘ever-closer union’ with the EU at Maastricht, as John Major did, or spent years frustrating the democratic will of the people as Theresa May did – then, yes, he should resign.
Instead, he went to a work party for 25 minutes during lockdown, which he should not have. If his presence had led to someone catching Covid-19 and dying, that might be another matter, but it did not.
The past allows us perspective on the present, which we seem to have entirely lost in this imbroglio. It also tells us that in General Elections, people vote with the future in mind, not something that, by the time of the next ballot, will be four years behind us.
To discard a proven Election winner and a leader who got Brexit done, saved Britain from a Marxist-Leninist Prime Minister, protected the economy during the worst peacetime emergency for a century, and called Christmas 2021 correctly against much of the official advice, would be folly. He deserves another chance to rehabilitate himself.
Plenty of premiers have drunk in the Last Chance Saloon, and afterwards, somewhat chastened, they have pushed the swing doors open, stepped out into the street, and won again. Boris should be given the opportunity to be one of them.
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