The Observer view on why Britain needs Tory MPs to oust Boris Johnson

Britain has suffered bad prime ministers in various guises: the ineffective and weak, the out of touch, the self-interested. None, however, can match Boris Johnson, whose utter lack of integrity, honesty and commitment to public service put him in a dire class all of his own. His continuing tenure in Downing Street after being fined for breaking his own laws, and as new revelations continue to emerge about his lack of financial probity, is a national disgrace.

Thursday’s disastrous byelection results in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton are only the latest sign that the public have fallen out of love with their prime minister. Johnson suffers from dreadful personal ratings and fewer than one in three voters have confidence in the government’s handling of the economy. The results illustrate three uncomfortable truths for the Conservatives. First, Johnson has in the space of less than three years transformed from an electoral asset into an electoral liability for the Conservative party. Second, Brexit has rapidly declined in political salience in the last three years. Johnson was able to use the promise of getting Brexit done to knit together an electoral coalition that brought together Conservative heartlands with many formerly Labour-voting seats in the Midlands and the north in 2019. But even though a majority of voters in both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton voted for Brexit, this did not stop significant numbers of voters in each seat voting for Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively. Last, there is an anti-Conservative sentiment among voters who are prepared to vote tactically in order to unseat Conservative MPs where there is a clear anti-Conservative front runner, whether they are Labour or Liberal Democrat. This cost the Conservatives heavily in 1997 after almost 20 years in government and it is likely to cost them heavily again in 2023 or 2024.

This newspaper has long argued that Johnson must resign on substantive grounds and that if he will not go willingly there is a moral duty on MPs in his party to force him out. Other prime ministers from both parties would have had the decency to resign had they committed any one of a number of Johnson’s infractions, including breaking the law and misleading parliament. Yet Johnson still clings to office even as new allegations about wrongdoing come to light.

Last week, he was accused of trying to secure employment for his partner in a senior Foreign Office job while foreign secretary and asked the cabinet secretary to lobby the royal household for a job on his behalf as prime minister, allegations he did not deny when put to him in parliament last week. Conservative sources have reported that Johnson also planned on soliciting a £150,000 donation from the same donor who paid for the Downing Street flat refurbishment in order to build a treehouse for his son on the grounds of his grace-and-favour residence at Chequers, until the proposal was scuppered on security grounds by the police. It is at the same time ludicrous and entirely believable. Yet only four in 10 of his MPs voted against Johnson in the vote of confidence triggered earlier this month. If the national interest is not enough for Tory MPs – and it should be for any parliamentarian with a sense of duty to their country and their voters – then self-interest should motivate them. The longer Johnson is allowed to continue in office, the more damage he will to do their party as well as the country.

What is abundantly clear is that Johnson is a prime minister who does not know why he is in office. There are no ideas and no guiding philosophy that appear to drive the work of his government, just empty rhetoric around “levelling up” without any policy levers that could credibly close the big economic gap between the south east and the rest of the country. Brexit is “done” in the sense that the UK has left the EU, but it has been achieved in a way that has undermined the political stability of Northern Ireland, is likely to result in decades of negotiation and renegotiation and has depressed Britain’s GDP at a time of economic stagnation and record inflation, a burden people simply cannot afford.

New policy announcements take the form of unworkable interventions that cause great harm for the sake of capturing newspaper headlines, such as the government’s plan to forcibly deport asylum seekers from countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan to Rwanda, or to privatise Channel 4, or to scrap the Human Rights Act in an attempt to water down citizens’ abilities to challenge unlawful government actions in the courts. Again and again, Johnson tries to blame anyone else for his woes; from a Labour party that has not been in government for 12 years; to the press for daring to report his misdeeds instead of trumpeting his so-called achievements. The rambling interviews he gave the day after the byelection results were an embarrassment.

All this is taking too long to sink in for a cohort of Conservatives who know they are in electoral trouble but do not know what to do about it and a cabinet of hapless ministers, many of whom are in high office not because of talent but solely because they have pinned their own fortunes to Johnson’s mast. But the longer they leave it, the worse it will be not just for the Conservative party, but for the country. Boris Johnson must go and Conservative MPs must make it happen.

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