Can he survive? That is now the question both obsessing and engulfing Westminster as the Prime Minister could well face his own ‘ides of March’.
Wednesday’s performance at PMQs was excruciating for Conservative MPs to watch. Even by Boris Johnson’s standards his exercise in bluff, bluster and obfuscation represented a new low. You could read the eyes of the masked front-bench and they said this was a Prime Minister knee deep in political poop.
He announced an inquiry to establish if an alleged Downing Street party took place last December in breach of Covid rules. Why does he need an inquiry? Why hasn’t he established what happened for himself by carpeting those who apparently attended?
He has been in denial about the story. His handling of subsequent developments has been inept. If it did not take place, why were his communications people engaging in a mock press conference working out how to manage the story of a rule breaking soiree? If it really didn’t happen, why did Allegra Stratton feel the need to resign?
The Conservative Party has above all else an instinct for survival and has been brutal with its leaders when the time is right.
Ted Heath’s stiffness and inability to connect led to MPs replacing him with Margaret Thatcher. She was the victim of ‘treachery with a smile’ when she was considered past her sell by date. Theresa May was brushed aside in howls of anguish from hard-line Brexiteers. Now that Brexit is done, many MPs will conclude that Johnson’s work is done too.
There is a sense of mutiny on the backbenches. Those normally ultra loyal to Boris Johnson are on mute. The leader and former leader of the Scottish Conservatives have opined in tones that heap pressure on the Prime Minister and intensify the sense of crisis.
I have lost count of the number of prime ministerial U-turns, all indicative of a man who is governed by events, kicked around because he has neither the sensitivity for policy detail or the feel for managing a crisis.
This crisis is the most serious yet for at its heart is a simple issue. Do the rules made by those who govern apply to themselves? If they are seen to have contempt for those rules then they have contempt for Parliament and most important of all, contempt for those from whom they derive all authority: the people.
The issues are all so obvious and their ability to strip the government of all authority is as easy to read as the signage on a jumbo jet. Politicians and voters can read them effortlessly. In fact everyone can read them bar, it would seem, the Prime Minister.
Harold MacMillan once said that the thing he feared most in politics was “events, dear boy, events”. That view cuts to a great truism. There are issues out with your immediate control that will determine your fate.
Boris Johnson’s premiership has been one long exercise in fire-fighting on many issues some of them as a result of self-inflicted wounds. The current issue feels like it could be the tipping point, the issue that represents one heave to the prime ministerial knackers’ yard.
Conservative MPs know this permanent sense of drift cannot continue. They are the only people who can wield the dagger. If they conclude he is Labour’s best asset then they will invoke historical precedent and do as they always do, they will finish him off.