After this weekend’s celebration of 70 years of constancy and continuity under Queen Elizabeth, Britain will enter a period of political uncertainty next week that will continue at least until its next general election. It will determine the fate of Boris Johnson and the Tories’ future in government and could potentially open up opportunities in Britain’s relationship with Ireland and the rest of the European Union. But before that, Britain’s neighbors should brace themselves for trouble.
Fifty-four Tory MPs are to write letters to Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 backbench committee, to trigger a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s leadership. Forty-Five have already publicly questioned his stance, so the expectation in Westminster is that if Brady hasn’t received enough letters to call for a vote he will have done so by next week.
If the target is not met next week, it is almost certain to be after by-elections in the Tory seats of Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton on June 23. Wakefield, which the Tories first won from Labor in 2019, is vacant because its former MP, Imran Ahmad Khan, was jailed last month for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.
Neil Parish, who had a majority of over 24,000 in Tiverton and Honiton, resigned as MP after he was seen watching porn on his phone in the Commons bedroom. The Tories are expected to lose both by-elections, one to Labor and the other to the Liberal Democrats.
Each time the vote of no confidence takes place, 180 Tory MPs will have to vote against Johnson to overthrow him and the conventional wisdom in Westminster is that the sooner the vote takes place the more likely he will be to survive it. The “payroll vote” of ministers and more junior government figures represents more than 170 MPs, and while many will want to take their chances under a new leader, large numbers are likely to support Johnson out of loyalty or self-interest.
If the vote of no confidence fails to unseat the PM, party rules say there can’t be another for 12 months, but as Theresa May found out, rules are one thing and politics is another. She survived a vote of no confidence in December 2018, winning 200 out of 317 votes, but her authority was shot down and she left a few months later.
If Johnson wins but the number of rebels outnumbers those who voted against May, he will be badly hurt and his already unruly House Party could soon become ungovernable. If he loses, he will be dropped from the ensuing leadership contest, in which MPs will choose two candidates in front of all party members for the final choice.
Since the anti-lockdown party scandal in Downing Street first became a political threat to Johnson last year, he has governed almost exclusively with the aim of winning the approval of Tory MPs. After a few months of trying to please everyone, he has focused in recent months on the party’s right-wing MPs who formed the core of his supporters when he took over the leadership three years ago.
Immunity from prosecution
That is why the UK government last month tabled proposals to tackle crime related to the Troubles, which are opposed by all political parties and victims’ groups in Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish government. It will end investigations and civil suits related to these crimes and provide immunity from prosecution for those who cooperate with an information-finding commission.
The only group backing the legislation are Tory MPs who want to protect former British soldiers from prosecution for their actions in Northern Ireland. But in Johnson’s current political situation, those are the only people who matter.
The Prime Minister’s political weakness also informs his approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol, which he negotiated in 2019 but has been bashing ever since. Later this month he will introduce legislation to unilaterally tear up the protocol, risking a confrontation with Brussels that could lead to trade sanctions and even the termination of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which guarantees free -exchange between Great Britain and Europe. Union.
Johnson claims the protocol undermines the Belfast deal because the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will not allow Stormont’s institutions to function until it is “fixed”. The EU has offered to address the central problem the protocol presents for the DUP and other trade unionists – excessive controls on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland – but that will not be enough for Johnson.
The EU is willing to implement the agreement in a less intrusive way and even change its own rules, but it will not change the text of the protocol, which is part of an international treaty. But Johnson insists it needs to be deeply renegotiated to address issues such as VAT rules, state aid and the role of European courts as well as checks on goods.
In a thoughtful piece this week, the Tony Blair Institute argued for a new round of negotiations that leave open the legal form a new deal might take. But as the report’s author acknowledged, European leaders have no desire to renegotiate the protocol and Johnson is too weak to compromise.
In fact, Johnson’s position is such that he will not be able to agree to any deal offered by Brussels, as he could never be good enough to satisfy the diehard Eurosceptics in his benches. Any further EU concessions will be counterproductive, rewarding Johnson’s recklessness with no prospect of it leading to a deal.
If no progress is possible under Johnson, could things improve under his successor? After a series of ballots to narrow the field, MPs are likely to choose a candidate representing the liberal One Nation wing of the party and another that appeals to the nationalist and populist leaning.
But when they start campaigning for party member votes, the two candidates will have to converge to the right because that’s where most of the Tory activists are. The safest option on the protocol will be to support the government’s current position, promising to fight for British sovereignty and protect the Union.
Tobias Ellwood, the Conservative chairman of the House of Commons defense committee, stirred up a flurry of enthusiasm this week when he suggested Britain join the European single market. Writing in House magazine, a weekly publication for MPs and their peers, he said it was time to face up to the fact that Brexit was going badly.
“Our exports to Europe are down £20 billion. From fishermen who can no longer sell their Scottish salmon, to farmers plagued by unchecked imports, to cheesemakers in Cheshire who face £180 health certificates, even to the city who can no longer sell financial services to the Europe, sector after sector is strangled by the bureaucracy we were meant to escape,” he wrote.
“If joining the single market (with conditions) results in strengthening our economy, alleviating the cost of living crisis, solving the Irish problem at once and promoting our European credentials as we increasingly take more advance in Ukraine, wouldn’t it be rude not to face this reality?
The intervention drew a predictable response, with Downing Street telling friendly reporters it showed the plot against Johnson was aimed at reversing Brexit. Ellwood’s friend Tom Tugendhat, who may have leadership ambitions, distanced himself from the proposal, tweeting: “Tobias is wrong. The single market puts the EU in the driver’s seat.
But Ellwood’s proposal reflects what many MPs are hearing from business about the cost of the ideological deal brokered by David Frost and the unnecessary barriers to trade it has created.
Labor is keen to avoid talk of Brexit, focusing on the government’s incompetent implementation of it rather than the terms of the deal. But the party is in favor of a veterinary agreement with the EU that would eliminate the most intrusive controls required by the protocol.
Labor opposes the Bill offering amnesty for crimes linked to the Troubles and will vote against unilateral action on the protocol. A new Tory leader with a strong mandate could moderate Britain’s approach to Northern Ireland and EU relations. But for now, the best course for Dublin and Brussels is to sit still, hold on and fight back if Britain goes ahead with its reckless protocol plan.