A previous generation of Tories was much more ruthless with Thatcher
Amid the terrible spectacle of the drawn-out collapse of this Government, a lot of attention is focused on the Prime Minister.
As and when the end arrives, that focus will suit a lot of people. But while the larger-than-life character of ‘Boris’ tends naturally to overshadow its surroundings — and usually revels in doing so — in this case it conceals too much.
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It is obvious that the Prime Minister needs to go. And yet, he — at the time of writing — remains in power. Contrast this with the ruthlessness a previous generation of Conservatives showed when they deposed Margaret Thatcher. Love her or loathe her, she was a three-time election winner who had delivered a transformative agenda during almost a decade in power.
That a hard core of Thatcherites were prepared to follow her to the very end, even if it meant losing an election, is in some ways perhaps less surprising than the fact that a majority were prepared to unsentimentally replace her.
Johnson’s colleagues, on the other hand, have shown much greater hesitancy, and it isn’t immediately obvious why. There is no transformative agenda to speak of.
But perhaps this lack of a programme is part of the Prime Minister’s durability. Thatcher was a divisive figure, but she could make room in her Cabinet for powerful and independent figures because there was a common project to work on.
The current Prime Minister, in contrast, has selected for loyalty to himself, and in truth there is little else he could select for. For Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak, the u-turns and humiliations eventually proved too much. But it augers ill for the Tories that so many of their senior figures are prepared to put up with such treatment, even now, all in the same of getting so little done.
If the end comes, it looks as if it will be in the hands of the backbenchers. Yet Tory leaders have moved to neuter this threat as well: creating an Oort Cloud of trade envoys and the like to unofficially expand the payroll vote whilst asserting greater central control of selections, for example.
David Cameron even tried to get government MPs onto the 1922 Committee, which would have all but hobbled its ability to threaten the leader of the day. And at the same time, campaigns against outside earnings mean MPs are more dependent than ever on the goodwill of the leadership for pay and progression.
The net result of all this is politicians and ministers at every level are more dependent on the leadership — and thus unwilling or unprepared to move against it when necessary. The means are there, but the will is lacking. Boris thus hobbles on.