One should never underestimate Boris Johnson, whose entire life has been one long getting into scrapes to show he can get out of them. But perhaps what happened on Monday night is the best-case scenario that doesn’t involve him immediately leaving Downing Street.
For him to win his confidence vote and to plod on as a wounded leader increases the chances that the party that enables him is going to pay for the damage it has done to Britain, by being not just defeated but destroyed at the ballot box next time around.
Of course, it would have been better to bring a swift end to the humiliation that Johnson has heaped on the UK, turning us into a global joke. We have all suffered through his ego, his incompetence, his useless, nodding-dog cabinet. Now we will keep on suffering – but for how long?
One thing is clear: that Johnson has reached this point, halfway through a parliament in which he had secured a majority of 80, is evidence of a dysfunction in him and in his operation that is beyond repair.
That dysfunction was brutally laid bare by Tory MP Jesse Norman’s letter withdrawing his support. It is about much more than parties. It is about a lack of integrity more broadly; and even more so, it is about a lack of purpose and a lack of a programme for government.
The former minister was right to call the idea of privatising Channel 4 “unnecessary and provocative” and the notion of breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol “economically very damaging, politically foolhardy and almost certainly illegal”.
But Norman was most devastating when he confronted the reality of how Johnson operates.
There is “no long-term plan”, Norman wrote. “Rather you are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject and to create political and cultural dividing lines mainly for your advantage, at a time when the economy is struggling, inflation is soaring and growth is anaemic at best.”
Norman is right. There is no Johnson Project. There is day-to-day stumbling and mismanagement and fooling around. There is getting into scrapes, and getting out of them. That is it. It has been his modus operandi all his life.
Schools and colleges and newspapers and London mayoral offices have had to endure it.
That he made it all the way to Downing Street on that basis is testimony not only to Johnson’s peculiar presentational skills, but also to the chronic weaknesses of our political and media ecosystems.
His supporters continue to insist that he gets all the big calls right – on Brexit, Covid, Ukraine. No, he doesn’t.
Brexit is going wrong and Johnson will not face up to the realities of the damage done to trade, to growth, to the peace process in Northern Ireland, to our standing in the world.
On the Covid-19 pandemic, a public inquiry will lay bare the utter chaos and incompetence on Johnson’s part when it began, and the enormous waste and corruption across the government.
As for Ukraine, the notion of Johnson “leading the international coalition” is a line uttered nowhere outside the Conservative party and its media cheerleaders. And is anyone seriously pretending that he has got the big calls right on the cost-of-living crisis?
So he limps on. But there will be another challenge, another crisis along shortly. If he outlasts Partygate, there will be another -gate opening before too long.
Deep down, Tory MPs know it. Their party knows it. The public are ahead of them on it. They are not having Johnson, simple as that.
After the TV coverage from St Paul’s Cathedral ended last Friday, I went out on my bike and cycled down there.
I spoke to a few people who admitted booing the prime minister as he and his wife entered the cathedral for the Platinum Jubilee service. It wasn’t loathing so much as disgust that led to the boos.
Johnson’s MPs will have confronted plenty of the same in their constituencies. That is why, even the ones who backed him, they all know… he is done.
Never mind Operation Save Big Dog, the people want what one Conservative rebel expressed on Monday: “The big dog needs to go to the farm and never come back again.”
On Monday night, MPs voted on whether there should be minimum standards and a basic level of competence in public life. Those who voted for Johnson also voted for zero honesty, zero integrity, for corruption, for incompetence and for gaslighting where once governments used to have a plan.
For all the claims of victory, it is over. The sooner they put themselves out of the misery of thinking he is capable of change, let alone changing the country for the better, the better it will be for all of us.