There are not very many good things to say about the Conservative party in Parliament these days.
Barely a month seems to pass without one of their number being exposed as some kind of pervert. Others among them seem far more interested in plotting their own ascents than in delivering sound public administration or working out what they actually believe in.
But one of the good things to say is that Sir Graham Brady seems like a sensible chap, running the all-powerful backbench 1922 Committee in a calm and mature fashion.
One supposes that Sir Graham must sometimes look at the most likely course of events around Boris Johnson’s party leadership and despair. For after the by-election defeats of last week it seems certain that new plots to oust the Prime Minister will emerge and that they will be strongly resisted.
The imminent elections for the 1922 executive already seem doomed to descend into a battle between rule-changers and rule-upholders as regards the stipulation that a PM cannot face two confidence votes in a single 12-month period. In other words, a proxy war.
The clever money is on a bitter and unseemly regicide that institutionalises factional bitterness at every level of the party – from its grandees to its grassroots – while appalling the electorate. And then a rookie and unknown replacement PM will be dropped in at the deep end of an acute living standards crunch to face opposition parties with their tails up.
It really doesn’t have to be like this. There is an obvious plan that could unite the various Tory factions, respect Johnson’s mandate and still deliver a velvet transfer to someone else should he fail to turn the party’s fortunes around.
So Sir Graham should gather Tory MPs together in small and like-minded groups and sell them the following blueprint:
First, every MP must abide by the result of the confidence vote of early June, stop sniping at the PM and let him get on with governing with an ostensibly united team behind him. Sir Graham should add that he will recommend withdrawal of the whip for any MP defying this position.
The primary purpose of this will not be to permit Johnson to ‘go on and on’, Thatcher-style, as he affects to wish. Rather it would be to show the party grassroots that he cannot be the person to lead it into the next general election.
Having given him a fair run, next May’s local election results should be used as the key indicator of whether Johnson’s leadership remains viable. If he has miraculously restored the party to the top of the charts then, naturally, he should be allowed to continue in office.
If he hasn’t been able to do that and instead the party has suffered yet another bloody nose, then at least he will have soaked up much of the inevitable unpopularity that comes with falling living standards. In these circumstances, Sir Graham should promise colleagues that he will visit the PM and tell him the game is up: that if he tries to soldier on not only will he face another confidence vote in early June 2023, but that he will suffer a humiliating defeat in it.
Better by far, Sir Graham should say at this visit, that the PM announces his intention to stand down at the summer recess of 2023, having completed four years in office and with three big achievements to his name: implementing Brexit, steering the country through the pandemic and delivering vital support to Ukraine. He should tell the PM to sleep on it and that if he won’t budge then events will take their grisly course and he will be out even sooner.
Between now and next May, Cabinet ministers and others with leadership ambitions should be positively encouraged to make wide-ranging speeches about their vision for the country. October’s Tory conference will provide the most important opportunity for that and the party should be quite open about this being done as part of its long-term succession planning. In this way, the opportunity for viable alternative potential PMs to emerge can be enhanced.
By far the most likely outcome is that Johnson’s Tories will get yet another pasting from the electorate in early May next year. Sir Graham will make his visit to No. 10 immediately afterwards and after a brief cogitation Johnson will see the good sense in the dignified exit that has been offered to him.
In this scenario a non-chaotic, non-bitter leadership contest can follow without Johnson loyalists stoking a mythology of sabotage and betrayal. With any luck, inflation will be falling and a new PM will have a sporting chance of enjoying a honeymoon with the electorate.
There is something for everyone in this scheme: a well-timed removal of Johnson for those who think they know him to be a busted flush combined with a fair opportunity for him to prove that he has a final electoral miracle left in him.
The alternative is an autumn so full of angst and misery for the Tories that the opposition parties will only need to step back and watch joyously as their hated foes rip themselves to shreds.
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