Wednesday 27 May 2020

Will there be a Tory Rebellion?

What was one of the enduring lessons of Theresa May's premiership when it entered into crisis following the 2017 general election? And what did we learn from the chaos in parliament last Autumn? Repeat after me: there is no such thing as a Tory rebel. Or at least a consistent one. With inglorious recent history in mind, how does this bear on recent events? It's now obvious Dominic Cummings isn't about to go willingly, and Boris Johnson has decided to cling on to him for dear life. Even if it means dynamiting essential public health messaging and exposing people to needless risk. Where does this leave the Tories?

Most MPs are at their lickspittle best, trotting out identical tweets and writing messages cut and pasted from whips' office circulars. But an increasing number have poked their heads above the parapet. Conservative Home stopped their rolling list when 36 names broke cover. Throughout the day and following Johnson's half-arsed appearance in front of the select committee chairs this afternoon, this has now mushroomed to somewhere in the region of 50. And, apparently, there are eight cabinet members who've indicated to the lobby hacks they're unhappy and think Cummings should go. With the exception of Penny Mordaunt, who has publicly criticised Cummings, the rest have stated their opposition from the consequence-free cloak of anonymity.

Readers might recall George Freeman from the Brexit wars, the soft-spoken but loquacious member for mid-Norfolk and victim of February's cabinet clear-out, which also saw the departure of Sajid Javid. His call for Cummings's resignation summates the views of his disgruntled colleagues. In his letter to the Prime Minister, he writes about his postbag and describes the moods as a "scale of depth and of the anger felt by constituents is like nothing I have seen in ten years." And remember, we have lived through the polarising fun that was Brexit. He goes on to note the multiple breaches of the rules, which Cummings brazenly owned up to and tried claiming they were nothing of the sort, before moving on to the killer punch: Cummings's behaviour and refusal to even apologise (or even issue a politician's non-apology) has fatally undermined the public health strategy and trust in the government at the very moment the rules are changing and become more complicated. Exactly right. Proof even a Tory is right about politics twice a day.

50 MPs for whom public health comes before the Johnson/Cummings project, but what are they going to do about it? As plenty of Westminster watchers have noted, it's one of those occasions where absences say a great deal more than who has signed up. Apart from Freeman, the very Brexity Steve Baker, and a few names who rebelled for remain reasons in the Autumn, those coming forward thus far are hardly A-listers. Where are the big names? Jeremy Hunt is about the only front rank Tory to have cast aspersions on Cummings. The others have so far kept quiet, though understandably in Javid's case any complaints could/would be spun as sour grapes. Yet the longer these oppositionists, and I use that term advisedly, are out in the open and enjoying the backing of the Tory press the greater the damage. If more senior members come out the more acute the crisis becomes.

And yet, in all truth, provided disgruntled Tories write letters and give critical interviews, from a party management point of view Johnson and Cummings can tough it out. This isn't like Theresa May after June 2017, when she was assailed from all sides by would-be leaders who lacked the strength to depose her and carry the party, there are no contenders to give Johnson the heave ho. Despite his manifest laziness, he has proven his electability as far as they're concerned. And, well, in the middle of a crisis that has killed more Britons than the Blitz launching any kind of leadership bid is hardly the best of looks. Political suicide just about covers the consequences. And so the anti-Cummings tendency are stuck. They're not going to put Johnson on notice. They're not going to start rebelling against his legislative programme. They're not going to do anything.

While it is true one should take Tory rebellions with a pinch of salt, in this case it's not lack of spine that's stymieing them but the balance of forces in the parliamentary party and the national crisis. As they're not going to move neither is the situation. The Cummings wound remains open and, too late, has introduced sepsis into the Tory body politic, destroying its poll standing and the government's legitimacy as the custodian of public health. Boris Johnson has shown he'd rather protect the career of his indispensable advisor than the health of the tens of thousands likely to get infected as others feel free to play fast and loose with the distancing regulations. The Cummings hubris has paved the way for nemesis, but it's us - our relatives, our friends, maybe ourselves - who might be called upon to pay the ultimate price.

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asquith said...

Jonathan Gullis will certainly not be taking part in any 'rebellion'!

Dialectician1 said...

Nah. Of course not. DC did what the rich do.

Most of the rich of Manhattan decamped to their 2nd/3rd homes when the virus was running rampant through the NY City. And, as any good social historian will tell you the same thing happened during the Blitz. The casualties of the so called 'People War' were those left behind. During the bombing raids, the rich had either legged it to their country retreats or moved into hotels. Throughout the war, they dined in fancy restaurants, while the rest endured rationing. Many of them did 'voluntary work' so as to dodge conscription or compulsory war work. See Selina Todd's 'The People'.

What Cummings did is part of a long tail of the 'sharp elbowing' repertoire of his class. There is no moral compass with this lot. Those 80+ Tory MPs who voiced criticism of Cummings were only do so to protect their majorities.