Voices: Johnson loyalists like Priti Patel have talked themselves into irrelevance – Sunak must avoid a similar fate
If things had been going the way the Bring Back Boris campaign had wished, then Rishi Sunak would have resigned by now in abject shame at the local election results, and Boris Johnson would be party leader and prime minister again, by acclaim.
They hoped for the biggest comeback since Lazarus. A few months ago, it looked just about plausible. After the restoration of Johnson, so the dream went, there’d be a contrived vote in the Commons to call off the “kangaroo court” select committee into Johnson lying to parliament, and the Tories would be catapulted into a 10-point lead over Labour, a fifth term in office, and all would be well again in our unicorn cakeist kingdom.
Things haven’t quite turned out like that, and the present conference in Bournemouth of something called the Conservative Democratic Organisation, or CDO, demonstrates not how strong the cult of Boris is these days, but how rapidly marginalised it has become. Marginalised from power for the moment that is, but with immense capacity to cause trouble now and into the future as the party stumbles towards a historic defeat.
Given that the main effect of the CDO is to demonstrate to a bemused public precisely how hopelessly shambolic, divided and confused our governing party is, the group should be more accurately termed the “Conservative Democratic Disorganisation”, such is its power to create further mayhem at a time when the present administration is anyway very obviously unravelling.
That said, things could have been even worse for Sunak and his beleaguered gang at the top of the party had Johnson himself turned up, as was widely rumoured. But the second coming has plainly been postponed. So they’ve made do with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and Priti Patel instead. That’s right, the usual suspects.
As my colleague John Rentoul has pointed out, the publicity material for the CDO conference, ie The Bring Back Boris rally, “looks like a Christian stadium event preparing for the Rapture”. There is definitely a cultish, millenarian vibe about this lot.
It is as if they know that their world is about to end, but that, sooner or later, the Messiah will return to gather them unto his bosom and once again part the red wall as he leads them through the wilderness to the promised land. Except of course, to borrow a famous phrase, Johnson isn’t the Messiah; he’s a very naughty boy.
Indeed, it was his very naughtiness that led to his government collapsing under his feet in a matter of days and his miserable downfall last July (though it feels now like the last century).
As part of the fairly hopeless campaign to resurrect Johnson before the election, the high priests of the CDO spend a great deal of time burnishing a classic “stab in the back” myth of betrayal. This as if Johnson’s own government, with a few exceptions, had been composed of Judases, such as the “snake” Sunak (boo!), and, erm, about 60 of Johnson’s own serving ministers who resigned en masse.
Johnson, in the classic betrayal myth, was supposed to be popular when he was ditched – but he wasn’t, as the polls, local elections and by-elections at the time proved. Johnson was clearly an asset back in 2019, re-running the 2016 referendum with a split opposition, but that was a different world.
By 2022 he was an increasingly embarrassing liability, after Partygate, economic slowdown, the emerging disaster of Brexit, daily scandals, and the Owen Paterson and Chris Pincher affairs made fools of him and the colleagues he sent out to defend him in the media.
True, Johnson still looks Churchillian next to Liz Truss, who plumbed new depths with her Titanic mini-Budget, but that doesn’t mean he’d be a vote winner now. Yet the idea persists in the cult of Boris and revivalist meetings such as the CDO conference, that the Tory MPs dumped him out of sheer panic. Or, as Johnson put it when he stood outside Downing Street to announce his resignation, “when the herd moves, it moves”. Johnson has never accepted he’s ever done anything wrong, so why should his disciples?
To them, he is a talisman, and his mere presence at the top of the party can restore the confidence and successes of 2019, the best result in vote share since 1979. The CDO gathered in Bournemouth are literally praying for a miracle.
Typical is Patel’s claim that “those in power and control” (ie Sunak and his shadowy conspiracy) “took down a vote-winning political giant”. These false gods had, according to Patel, spurned the true believers, such as she herself presumably, reshuffled out of the home office and into oblivion by Sunak.
Instead, the “minority” should have heeded the warnings of the grassroots of the party because “they would be more in touch with the people and with our values … And perhaps if they did that, last week we would not have seen 1,000 of our friends and colleagues lose their seats in the local elections and dozens of councils fall out of Conservative control. Never again should the grassroots of our party be sidelined, neglected and ignored.”
Patel and the rest of the dispossessed sound very much like the cliques on the left of the Labour Party who preached democracy, but were in fact intent on using a perversion of democracy to capture the party. Purges of “moderates”, direct elections for party leader and control of the manifesto were their interim aims, just as they are (stated or unspoken) by their mirror-image counterparts in the CDO.
When the likes of Militant, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (an eerie echo there) and Momentum succeeded in putting figures such as Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn in positions of power, they took their party even further away from power and into irrelevance. They germinated during Labour governments, and then thrived in opposition on myths of “betrayal” of the holy writ of the manifesto and apostasy towards party “values” and “principles” (just as CDO does now).
When they got their hands on the conference, policy committees and pressured the MPs, they dragged Labour ever further away from its natural voters. At times, they even managed to split the party, as when the SDP broke away in 1981, and what became Change UK in 2019.
If the CDO persist, they too show every sign of turning the fault lines in the Tory party into a full-blown schism, with the right allying itself with cranky Farageist splinter groups such as Reform and Reclaim; and the rump of centrists and exiles trying to go back to an older pro-Europe, One Nation tradition.
This would be the outcome of the long-gestated realignment on the right. It would lock them out of power for a generation. Well may we mock the fruitcakes in Bournemouth, but they and their leader, Johnson, have the capacity to destroy the (hitherto) most successful political party in the history of democracy.
Meanwhile, they’ve got a black-tie gala dinner with “wine, live music from Britain’s Got Talent stars Soldiers of Swing”, and a speech from Rees-Mogg to get through: not that they’re out of touch or yearning for a better yesterday, or anything like that. Carriages at 1am, if not at the next general election.