Ingram Pinn illustration of Robert Shrimsley column ‘Betrayalism threatens to topple Boris Johnson’
© Ingram Pinn/Financial Times

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. The forces that carried Boris Johnson to power are now undermining the British prime minister. After a few months when it seemed Brexit had slaked the Tory taste for feuding and regicide, the Conservative party is succumbing once more to the heady brew of mistrust, absolutist ideology and contempt for authority. In a single word: betrayalism.

From Brexit to Covid-19 lockdowns, the betrayalists’ defining conviction is that leaders let you down or sell you out. It sets them up to fail while preserving the purity of those untainted by the compromises demanded by political reality. They are spurred on by rightwing outriders with their own self-serving agendas — from Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, to a Tory press vilifying scientists. Many are sure to pop up soon to denounce a Brexit trade deal.

As Mr Johnson analyses why more than 60 of his MPs refused to support his latest Covid-19 plan, he may be tempted to fix on the localised revolt against some of the illogicalities of his policies (does a Scotch egg count as a “substantial” pub meal or not)? The rebels included many from the mainstream of the party, including a strong contingent of Kent MPs angry that their county faced the greatest restrictions. It is also true that the vast bulk of Tories backed Mr Johnson. With the first vaccine now approved, he may feel he can ride out the dissent till the spring.

But rebellion is habit-forming and contagious and, unlike the R number, this one only rises. It needs just a sizeable minority to destabilise a government. Ask John Major, or David Cameron or Theresa May.

A mere year after Mr Johnson’s election victory, a sixth of his MPs were unwilling to trust him in a crisis. More worrying still, is that this comes after he parted ways with Downing Street aides who had alienated MPs. For betrayalism needs broader discontent to flourish. A ginger group of hardliners may be the engine room of revolt but they cannot carry the party without mainstream support. So the narrative morphs from “betrayal” to “weakness”. Here, Mr Johnson’s high-handedness and multiple errors in fighting the pandemic have fuelled the revolt.

What should most alarm the prime minister is that fissure was not over the EU, but against Covid-19 restrictions. Where once there was a great ideological cause, the organisers’ instinct for revolt now looks endemic. For a slice of the party, it has become the norm: revolt, regicide, repeat.

The Brexit takeover of the Tories marked the victory of those — not least Mr Johnson himself — who argued that the UK’s leaders had sold out the country. The Conservative party began to despise the very institutions it was meant to defend, from the independent judiciary to parliament itself. Experts were scorned, forecasts disregarded.

The same is happening now with Covid-19. There is an economic argument against lockdown and the specifics of the restrictions. But hardliners offer no credible alternative beyond assailing a premier who is imposing rules with obvious reluctance as a health extremist because he thinks that 500 deaths a day may be a little on the high side.

As always there are the malign advisers. On Brexit, it was Theresa May’s Olly Robbins. Now, it is Mr Johnson’s chief medical and scientific advisers and the departed strategist Dominic Cummings. One senior cabinet minister even talks, only partly in jest, about the “health deep state”. What, no one asks, is the sinister secret ideology motivating these men in their treachery? Saving the NHS? Preventing more deaths?

At the centre of most rebellions Mr Johnson has faced are the same group of Brexit absolutists and libertarians who facilitated Mrs May’s destruction. They have learnt not only how to organise but to export their model. First, there was the European Research Group, then the China Research Group, the Northern Research Group and the Covid Recovery Group. Even the Tory mainstream has copied the ERG model. Not all memberships overlap, though some faces keep cropping up. Iain Duncan Smith, former party leader, is one. Steve Baker, the organising brain of the ERG, another.

Of course, there are always revolts and MPs defending local interests. This is how it should be. And not all these groups are inherently insurrectionist. They seek to amplify views on a particular issue. But, in each case, the fundamentals are the same. The prime minister is not listening, he is too willing to compromise. There is strength in numbers; he can be bullied.

There is a path away from this for Mr Johnson if he is ready to dismount the betrayalist tiger he rode to power in favour of a sunnier conservatism. While this revolt was large, the bulk of his MPs stuck with Mr Johnson. He can secure his Brexit deal with only limited rebellion. The vaccine can herald an end to the pandemic. A ministerial reshuffle can be used to split the rebels and marginalise the hardliners. This path requires better party management and fewer policy mistakes amid new fights over tax rises and spending cuts.

But what will most alarm Mr Johnson is that the cycle of revolt accelerates with each new leader. There is a moment in the new year for Mr Johnson. But with Brexit secured, if he cannot divert his MPs from the ever-decreasing circles of revolt and regicide, then ungovernability and betrayalism will become the party’s settled state.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

Follow Robert Shrimsley with myFT and on Twitter


Get alerts on Conservative Party UK when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article