Jamie Dettmer is Opinion Editor at POLITICO Europe.
Britain’s shell-shocked Conservatives hope their agony has drawn to a close.
They’ve gotten rid of Boris Johnson. Or at least they’re about to once they install a replacement who, they hope, will unite a polarized party and grapple with the huge social and economic challenges besetting a demoralized and disoriented country.
Johnson has Turkish ancestry and may be aware of the history of Mehmed II, the 15th century Ottoman Sultan who legalized the practice of fratricide to protect the state from siblings vying for power. “Of any of my sons that ascends the throne, it is acceptable for him to kill his brothers for the common benefit of the people,” Mehmed decreed.
Fratricide, however, leaves a bitter taste and has a habit of repeating itself. Blood begets blood. The many slayers who felled Caesar were hunted down and slaughtered in turn. Could the political careers of Johnson’s ousters face a similar fate?
Conservative ministers say their dagger thrusts were for the sake of party and country — a reasonable claim. And, anyway, Johnson’s political death was largely of his own shambolic making — they only assisted the suicide.
“For party and country,” was what Margaret Thatcher’s ministers told themselves after they pushed her out in 1990. But that didn’t stop a long simmering civil war that corroded Conservative unity for years with flare ups that derailed the government of her successor John Major. It consigned the Tories to years of squabbling in the political wilderness as Tony Blair’s New Labour ruled the roost.
Boris Johnson wasn’t loved by Tory lawmakers. He was never much of a parliamentarian and high-handedly neglected party backbenchers – except when he needed them in a tight corner. To him, they were there to vote and not to be heard.
As Johnson’s downfall is seized on to settle scores, toxic aftershocks will inevitably take on lives of their own. And as with all wars, once conflict has commenced, trajectories can become highly unpredictable.
Politicians are ambitious folk who will reach for anything to bash their rivals, even in summer garden parties or the sedate tea rooms of the House of Commons.
Just hours after Johnson announced he was quitting, the annual drinks party hosted by the Spectator, a Conservative-friendly news weekly, gave a clear hint of the bitterness and backstabbing to come. As aspiring Johnson replacements — including former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Nadhim Zahawi, the man who succeeded him — made the rounds, “all around them the knives were out,” The Times reported from the event.
“Sunak, already viewed as one of the front-runners, was the subject of a vicious briefing war, derided by rivals as a socialist and ‘the Remain candidate,’ even though he voted for Brexit,” the paper said. “Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, was variously derided as ‘mad’ and ‘Boris in a dress,’ a comment her supporters said was sexist.” Other reports highlighted a bust-up between bickering aides.
Political historian Tim Bale once noted British Conservative internecine fights take on a particularly bitter nature: “Because the Tories have always cared as much for men as measures, their arguments over high principle take on an extra edge by being bound up with high politics. The really big splits in the Conservative party’s long history have always seen fights over an issue conflated with competition for the crown.”
The large field of aspirants that’s forming to compete to replace Johnson reflects how thoroughly — and possibly hopelessly — divided the party is between “small government” libertarians, “big state” national conservatives, “one nation” centrists, Remainers and Leavers, so-called “Blue Wall” Tories of the south of England, and the “Red Wall” working-class northerners who traditionally voted Labour but were lured away by Johnson.
The soon-to-be former prime minister managed to keep that jumble together with rhetorical sleight of hand. His successor is unlikely to be able to pull off the same feat, especially against the backdrop of political toxicity that he seemed to be encouraging in his “resignation” speech.
Johnson is still adored by a large group of Conservative party members and supporters. An opinion poll published last week, on the eve of the ministerial putsch, found just 54 percent of Tory supporters wanted Johnson to quit — meaning a sizable portion was sticking by him, despite all the sleaze, lies and mismanagement.
They are the ones who may well have been nodding their heads when, in his resignation speech in Downing Street, Johnson blamed ministers and the parliamentary party for his downfall. “I have tried to persuade my colleagues that it would be eccentric to change governments when we are delivering so much, and when we have such a vast mandate, and when we are actually only a handful of points behind in the polls, even in mid-term,” he said.
Johnson clearly believes he was stabbed in the back, and he may well have issued an invitation for revenge.