The ‘limpet’: Why Boris Johnson believes he can cling to power

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Boris Johnson does not claim to be the best cricketer in the world — or even the best in his own family. 

He willingly admits his two younger brothers, Jo and Leo, are both better players. But Johnson is so ultra-competitive that he will never accept he’s losing, even when it’s painfully obvious to others that his side is headed for defeat. 

After a truly bruising 48 hours, many in Westminster believe the British prime minister now faces a humiliating end to his colorful — and consequential — premiership. With 41 percent of his Conservative MPs refusing to back him in an internal party vote Monday night, senior figures across government and throughout parliament expect him to be gone within months. 

But Johnson’s colleagues, critics and biographers all agree on one thing: it will be almost impossible to persuade this particular prime minister to quit. 

“He never left any of his wives — they always ended up divorcing him,” one Tory MP said of the three-times married prime minister. “It’s the same with No.10. He’ll never leave of his own accord. The party will have to kick him out.” 

For the U.K., the implications could be serious. A drawn-out battle between Johnson and his party risks paralysing parliament, if groups of rebel Tory MPs refuse to vote through legislation as a security crisis grips Europe and a cost-of-living meltdown hits voters at home. 

But under the U.K.’s famously vague constitution, a prime minister can choose to remain in office regardless of circumstances, until either the voters or their own MPs throw them out. The next general election is not due until May 2024. 

“Character is fate,” Tom Bower, one of Johnson’s biographers told the BBC on Tuesday. “He is someone who fights for survival.”

According to Andrew Gimson, author of Boris: The Making of the Prime Minister, the premier’s stubborn refusal to accept defeat was hardened while playing sport, both at school — he attended Eton, Britain’s most exclusive fee-paying school — and with his siblings at home. 

Gimson recalls playing in a cricket team with Johnson two decades ago, against a side run by Princess Diana’s brother, Earl Spencer. Johnson’s opponents that day included a former West Indies international who brutally hit a succession of bowlers for six, even damaging cars parked some distance away. 

But Johnson, who regards himself as having been a decent fast bowler in his heyday, would not admit defeat.

“We were being completely thrashed — but Johnson came on to bowl, and he did take a wicket, he did keep going and he did encourage the rest of the team not to give up,” Gimson said. “He always thinks he can win. He will fight until his dying breath.” 

Gimson quotes Johnson’s former teacher at Eton, Martin Hammond, who described the schoolboy as “an absolute berserker” on the rugby pitch. “There was a lot of yelling and hurling of himself reckless of life and limb — both his own and other people’s,” Hammond said.

The survivor

Johnson, an iconoclastic journalist before entering politics, has always behaved in a way that suggests he does not believe normal rules apply to him.  

According to Catherine Haddon, from the Institute for Government think-tank, Johnson’s top level political career was forged during and after the Brexit referendum campaign of 2016. That period was, above all, a battle against the established order, and against hallowed parts of the British Establishment such as the Civil Service. 

“He obviously doesn’t want to be constrained by the old political rules,” Haddon said. “He backs himself. The narrative has built up that he is a survivor who should not be underestimated. This situation is the ultimate test of that.” 

Part of Johnson’s political appeal has always been a public perception that he is not a normal politician who operates by the expected standards. While his flouting of lockdown rules has landed him in deep political danger, this same unconventional image was a key reason why he won a sizeable 80-strong majority in the 2019 general election. 

Two-and-a-half years later, many Tory MPs are now impatient for Johnson to move from ‘campaign’ mode to delivering what they perceive to be a proper Conservative agenda for government. Top of the wishlist among those on the right of the party are a series of long-promised — but yet-to-be-delivered — tax cuts for workers and business alike.

With the rebels having failed to oust him in Monday night’s confidence vote, internal party rules state Johnson is safe from another challenge for the next 12 months. 

Ironically, some Tories are now adopting Johnson’s own approach to rules they see as unhelpful — and are refusing to let them get in the way. Instead, some senior backbenchers want the Tory party’s leadership rules to be rewritten to allow MPs another vote to remove Johnson sooner than June 2023. 

Since Johnson became prime minister, the Conservative Party’s 1922 Committee of backbench MPs, which oversees internal leadership elections, has not discussed changing the rules to make another vote possible before the 12-month grace period expires. 

In order for a rule change to happen, it would need to become clear to Graham Brady, chairman of the committee, that many more Tories want the prime minister out.

Johnson’s critics believe the trigger for this could come as soon as this month, after two imminent by-elections which are expected to go badly for the government, or potentially in the autumn, when a parliamentary committee delivers its verdict on whether Johnson lied to the House of Commons over what he knew about lockdown-breaking parties in Downing Street. 

At that point, the 1922 Committee could decide to amend the rulebook if the pressure from Tory rebels is deemed sufficient. “It is possible for the rules to be changed,” one party official said. 

When Theresa May quit as prime minister in 2019, the 1922 committee executive held a secret ballot on whether to change the rules in this way. Votes were kept in sealed envelopes. Brady went to tell May that the envelopes would be opened if she refused to set a date for her departure. 

Several difficult meetings later, May agreed to resign — and the envelopes were never opened. 

So far, in the words of one minister, Johnson is simply “surviving.” He avoided a wave of resignations from his government on Tuesday, which could have destabilised his position further. The prime minister now plans a PR-driven fightback, with big speeches on housing and the economy in the days ahead. Amid carefully-placed rumors of a government reshuffle, the cabinet is staying loyal, for now. 

Yet the truce is unlikely to hold. In the eyes of one leading rebel, a new Tory civil war is breaking out. It is between MPs on one side who think integrity matters in politics, and that Johnson must go, and those who believe he must stay — because in 2019 he won a personal mandate to lead. 

As for Johnson himself, one senior Conservative said: “He only has one approach to adversity, which is to try to drive on through it.”

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