June 1, 2022 - 7:15am

It’s becoming ever more likely that Boris Johnson will face a vote of no confidence. Partygate won’t go away and Conservative MPs are realising the extent of the long-term damage done to their prospects of re-election.

The latest opinion poll is a shocker — showing Labour 11 points ahead; the PM’s personal approval ratings are subterranean; and this month’s ConHome Cabinet League Table puts him in the relegation zone.

Johnson’s allies are presenting a change of leadership as a reckless gamble. The Conservatives have already got a proven election winner at the helm, so why would they take a chance on some untested newbie?

But there’s an answer to that one: the lessons of history. Since the end of the Second World War, Conservative governments have swapped Prime Ministers six times — installing Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, John Major, Theresa May and Boris Johnson in Downing Street without first winning a general election.

In all but one case, these substitute leaders then went on to win the next election. The exception who proves the rule is Alec Douglas-Home — who though technically new, was very much part of the old guard — a throw-back, in fact.

By way of contrast, look at the circumstances in which Conservative governments have been thrown out by the voters. It doesn’t happen very often — just three times in our entire Post-War history; but each occasion is instructive.

The first time was 1964, when Douglas-Home was leader (see above). The second time was 1974 with Edward Heath, who’d been humiliated by the miner’s strike. The third time was 1997 with John Major, who’d never recovered from the Black Wednesday debacle. These were broken Prime Ministers who should have been replaced.

In Major’s case, the Tories wasted a golden opportunity. In 1995, faced with mounting attacks from from his own side, he took the initiative by resigning as party leader — though not as Prime Minister. This manoeuvre forced a leadership contest — allowing Major to put himself forward as a candidate and challenge his Tory rivals to “put up or shut up.” In the event, only John Redwood decided to put up — responding with a defiant slogan of his own: “no change, no chance.” His words proved prophetic: Redwood lost the leadership election and Major went on to lead his party to a devastating landslide defeat two years later.   

Conservative MPs in 2022 need to ask themselves about whether they’re in a similar situation. The Borisites will argue that Partygate is nothing like Black Wednesday. And they’re right — there’s no comparison between them. But then there never is — the disasters, debacles and scandals that break Prime Ministers are unique events. The Suez Crisis, the Profumo Scandal, the Winter of Discontent, the Brexit Referendum — there’s no common thread except the destruction of a leader’s credibility.

Therefore there’s no point in questioning the “seriousness” of Partygate. The only relevant question is whether Boris is broken or not. If he is, then history teaches his party what to do about it.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.