Boris Johnson’s Thatcher Moment?

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson (source: The Telegraph)

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is embroiled in a “Partygate” which might provoke the end of his premiership. For all we know and depending on the circumstances and the conclusions of the Sue Gray report, he might be living his last days at 10 Downing Street. Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London is one of the best specialists on the Conservative Party. Despite a busy schedule, he kindly accepted to answer a few questions for this blog.

Professor Bale, considering Mr. Johnson’s persona and past, do you think the organization of parties at 10 Downing Street while the rest of the UK was in lockdown was predictable?

Johnson has never considered rules as something that should constrain him, so it’s all too easy to believe that those parties took place and that he didn’t care.

What do you make of the 11 MPs elected in 2019 who submitted letters of no-confidence towards the Prime Minister [54 signatures are required to trigger a defiance vote] ? Do you think more MPs – and perhaps even ministers – are part of that rebellion?

Professor Tim Bale (source: University of Sussex)

There are certainly more people in the parliamentary party who think the PM should go – and the backing of a number of ministers has been lukewarm at best.  But it’s a classic collective action problem – it’s risky to come off the fence so many will want to see others do it before they do!

In British political history, there has been many defections, the most notable having probably been the one by Winston Churchill who crossed the floor of the House from the Tories to the Liberals. But I don’t recall any Conservative to Labour defection, such as the one performed by MP Christian Wakeford. What’s your take on it?

It reminds me of the 1990s when one of its MPs – Shaun Woodward crossed the floor. The last MP to defect from the Tories to Labour was Quentin Davies in 2007, when Gordon Brown was Prime Minister. Robert Jackson did the same in 2005.

Starmer seems to pass the blink test – people can close their eyes and imagine him as Prime Minister.

Compared to his predecessor, Sir Keir Starmer is much less polarizing and more of a centrist. Do you think Christian Wakeford’s defection is an indication that conservative voters have had enough with Boris? How do conservative-leaning voters react towards the current Labour Party Leader?

Starmer isn’t charismatic but he does come over as a straight shooter.  There’s not much enthusiasm for him but there’s not a lot of hostility – which may be just about enough when you’re the leader of the opposition!  At the very least he, unlike Jeremy Corbyn, his left-wing predecessor, seems to pass the blink test – people can close their eyes and imagine him as Prime Minister.

Boris Johnson’s authority is pretty much shot.

Many people (including myself) take for granted that the Tory leader is finished. But we never can take anything for granted in politics. Therefore, and if he is to survive politically, how firm is Boris Johnson’s grip (control) on the Conservative Party?

Even if he survives, his authority is pretty much shot. ‘Never glad confident morning again’, I suspect!

Knowing the history of the Conservative Party as you do and based on the story of Margaret Thatcher’s removal in 1990, do you think it is the beginning of the end for the Prime Minister?

I think a lot of the ingredients are there – electoral unpopularity, disgruntled and ambitious colleagues, serious policy problems, economic difficulties.  So, there are parallels.

Within the Party, who would/will benefit the most from Boris Johnson’s removal as leader?

There are a few Cabinet colleagues who must be hoping to take over, most obviously the Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss.

In a more general sense, do you have another book coming soon? If so, what will it be about?

Well, 2021 was quite a year – I had three (jointly authored and edited, I should stress!) books out.  So, nothing for a couple of years but, yes, I’m writing one at the moment about what on earth has happened to the Conservative Party since Brexit.

Many sincere thanks for the generosity of your time, Professor!


Among many other publications, Professor Bale is the author of the authoritative book The Conservative Party form Thatcher to Cameron (2nd edition, Polity Books, 2016).

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