All day we waited for news of Boris Johnson’s difficulties to reach the Tees Valley’s five Tory MPs. That was all day Wednesday, by the way. There was a point in the middle of the afternoon when it looked as if no one, other than their constituents, was ever going to let them know that there was a crisis at number ten.
Eventually, Darlington MP, Peter Gibson, popped up with a resignation letter from a job as PPS that no one knew he had, and the flood gates sort of opened. Jill Mortimer made a rare post on her Facebook page saying that she no longer supported the PM, as did Jacob Young. This must have been a bitter blow for Johnson as he had only recently reminisced in the House of Commons about the day Young had bought him an ice cream in his Redcar constituency.
That left only Matt Vickers in Stockton and Simon Clarke in East Cleveland. Clarke, of course, is the most senior of the region’s MPs, being Chief Secretary to the Treasury, a man, you might have thought, who was in pole position to step into Rishi Sunak’s shoes after his sudden resignation as Chancellor. But no, Johnson stepped right over him and gave that job to the more telegenic Nadhim Zahawi.
Did Clarke react angrily to the snub and send in his own letter of resignation? No, he did not. He just carried on quietly doing his best to avoid his constituents who have spent the day giving vent to their feelings about Johnson and giving Clarke the benefit of their wisdom about what side he should be on.
Peter Gibson and Jacob Young
For Gibson and Young, the reaction on Facebook to their letters of resignation is strikingly similar. While there are some who disapprove, the predominant view is that they have done the right thing. There are lots of comments congratulating them on their integrity. Hartlepool MP, Jill Mortimer attracts much less comment, although the tone is similar to the other two.
And back to Simon Clarke
Clarke’s page is interestingly different. For a start, given that he has not made any declaration, there are already lots of comments. And some of the sentiment expressed there is quite eye watering. In fact, if all you read today was the comments on Clarke’s Facebook page, you could be forgiven for thinking that Johnson’s premiership was all but secure.
What these comments lack in political insight they make up for in vehemence. Johnson captured the imagination of right-wing extremists at a time when they were in the ascendancy. They remain loyal to him now. His government is guilty of sleaze that far surpasses anything experienced during John Major’s term in office. Much of the blame lies with Johnson himself – lazy, self-serving, entitled. Yet there are those who offer him full-throated support and are not about to back down.
Given the extraordinary level of incompetence this government has exhibited right from election day onwards, you would expect there to be rioting in the streets by now. Yet there is none. When allegations of government sleaze were already coming thick and fast in 2021, Hartlepool elected its first Tory MP with a huge majority. The sleaze even had a local dimension with the Greensill scandal, but the electorate appeared to have no difficulty in overlooking that.
There’s no secret of what fuels the endless capacity of certain sections of the electorate to forgive Johnson his transgressions; it’s Brexit. Warped as it may seem to those who see it as a libertarian scam, Brexit, for those who support it, is aspirational. And Johnson embodies the spirit of Brexit.
When Johnson is finally removed by his MPs, as he inevitably will be, that aspiration will not disappear along with his premiership. Wait for the return of the supporters of ‘the one true Brexit’, “‘ard Brexit” as they used to call it in the days when Theresa May was in charge.
And speaking of Theresa May, there is the question of succession. It would appear that Tory MPs want to see an end to the abuse of power that has characterised Johnson’s tenure in office. That probably rules out of the leadership race anyone who comes from the absolutely bonkers wing of the party. The appetite, as it appears, is for someone sensible, someone who respects the institutions of government. Someone, in fact, like Theresa May. Two and a half years after their stunning election victory, the Tories may shortly find themselves right back where they started, that is to say, fragmented. Fragmented and constantly buffeted by the English nationalists that are so vocal in Clarke’s constituency. And somewhere in amongst them will be Clarke himself.