This time the mission is the man

B-Day comes and a beachhead is secured


June 6. D-Day. We woke to news that overnight, Tory MPs of the Allied Expulsionary Force had gone into action, by letter, by email and by WhatsApp, to force a confidence vote in the prime minister. They were now embarking on that great crusade, toward which they had striven these many months. The eyes of the world were upon them. The hopes and prayers of Boris-loathing people everywhere marched with them.  

Paratroopers were scattered all over the region

It was, all round, a great day to be in Parliament. Not in the chamber, obviously. But in the corridors, where Conservative MPs intercepted and avoided each other, asked journalists what they thought, asked each other what they thought, lied, confessed and changed their minds. You sometimes hear people say that the House of Commons is at its best when it’s united, but those days aren’t a patch on the times when it’s in a frenzy of blood-letting.

It was, if not the Longest Day, certainly a very long one. Doing the morning broadcast round, Sajid Javid was caught by surprise, perhaps having been assured that the assault was coming later in the week, and in Calais. “I see this as an opportunity,” he told the BBC, which didn’t sound as helpful to the government as he probably intended it to be. 

Slowly, somewhat unenthusiastically, the Cabinet rallied round. Saving Private Johnson, Yet Again. The mission was the man — on that, at least, both sides agreed.

Jeremy Hunt launched into a long series of wordy tweets that probably revealed he was going to be voting against the prime minister. Rhetorically it was more a slow crawl up Omaha Beach than a daring grab for Pegasus Bridge. Nadine Dorries returned fire with a battery of howitzers, accusing Hunt of having failed utterly to prepare for a pandemic during his six years as health secretary, which, if true, was not quite the endorsement of Tory government that she may have intended. At times like this, a true warrior accepts a little collateral damage.

At 4pm, the picture was confused. Paratroopers were scattered all over the region, and no one seemed to know what was going on. In an attempt to rally troops, Johnson addressed the 1922 Committee. Outside, the Europe Minister, James Cleverly, briefed reporters. The prime minister, he assured us, was “very much in serious mode”. Like so many endorsements of Johnson, it carried a probably unintended insult. As did his comment that the country had the leader it deserved.

Cleverly’s briefing, though, was nothing to what followed. Political convention means we can only refer to the person who gave it as a “senior party source” — or possibly a “senior parties source”, I may have misheard. He briefed us on the prime minister’s speech — “there was a lot of detailed policy stuff in the middle that I can’t remember” — and then moved on to the question of lockdown booze-ups. “Is there anyone here who hasn’t got pissed in their lives?” he asked, not entirely apologetically. “Is there anyone here who doesn’t like a glass of wine to decompress?” 

This, it turned out, was very much the tone that Johnson was offering in private. The parties were a media obsession. He’d have them again. A rumour spread that the prime minister’s supporters were trying to keep him away from wavering MPs. 

As night fell, who had won the day?

With that, it was time for the voting. Conservative MPs queued up for their moment of decision, going in one door and then coming out by another. They generally seemed perky, though Dominic Raab jumped the queue while the MP behind him was distracted. Joy Morrissey, another of Johnson’s parliamentary aides, stood by the exit door, noting each MP as they left. She didn’t appear to be trying to persuade them to back the prime minister, though it was possible she was, and just hadn’t realised it’s traditionally done before people have cast their votes. 

Theresa May arrived in a ball gown. It wasn’t clear whether she had another event to go to, or had just felt like dressing up. She emerged with a smile on her face. As the ancient proverb says, revenge is a dish best served fabulous. 

Late in the day Johnson himself arrived. Maybe he’d been on the fence about which way to vote. The money is better on the outside, after all, and no one keeps track of where you’re sleeping. 

The result, when it came, was a shock. As Sir Graham Brady revealed that 148 MPs had voted against Johnson, there was the sound of breath being sucked in. Supporters cheered, but in a stunned way, and then cleared the room quickly. 

As night fell, who had won the day? Johnson’s side was declaring victory, of course, the prime minister even claiming, improbably, “a far bigger mandate from my colleagues”. But the rebels seemed the more genuinely pleased. The battle wasn’t over, but a beachhead was secure. Not so much the end of the beginning as the beginning of the end.

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