“One of the defences used to defend against getting rid of the current Prime Minister is that it should not be done in the midst of a crisis.”
Sir Keir Starmer QC, the Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, no matter how deep in the mire Boris Johnson descends still declines to call on the Prime Minister to resign.
Some of his supporters say that Sir Keir Starmer QC should only urge Johnson to resign, if there is any chance of Johnson losing a Vote of No Confidence.
“If I could snap my fingers and force him to resign, then of course, we’d force him to resign,” he said.
And, if he could, they have the fall back argument of better the devil you know and/or Starmer is playing a long game.
As an aside, a long game is one way of describing an elaborate con, perpetrated over weeks, if not months.
Jeremy Corbyn was playing a long game on Brexit before December 2019 and his front man for that gambit then succeeded him as Labour leader.
The Norway Debate held between 7th and 9th May 1940 on the Government’s conduct of the war, included at the end of the second day, a division of the House of the Commons, effectively a Vote of No Confidence in the Government.
It is generally understood that Labour did not intend a division before the debate began, but Clement Attlee, leader of the Labour Party, after hearing the speeches of prominent backbench Conservative Members of Parliament, realised that discontent within Tory ranks was far deeper than had been initially thought.
A meeting of the Labour Party’s Parliamentary Executive was held on the morning of 8th May and Attlee proposed forcing a division at the end of the debate that day. There were a handful of dissenters, including Hugh Dalton, the Labour Party’s spokesman on foreign policy, but they were outvoted at a second meeting before the debate recommenced.
“In view of the gravity of the events which we are debating, that the House has a duty and that every Member has a responsibility to record his particular judgment upon them, we feel we must divide the House at the end of our Debate to-day.”
Roy Jenkins says the Labour decision to divide turned the routine adjournment motion into “the equivalent of a vote of censure”. Earlier in his opening address, Morrison had focused his criticism on Neville Chamberlain, John Simon and Samuel Hoare who were the three ministers most readily associated with appeasement.
The vote was won by the Government, but with a drastically reduced majority.
On 10th May, Neville Chamberlain resigned as Prime Minister leading to the replacement of his government by a broadly based coalition under Winston Churchill and the rest, as they say, is history.
Clement Attlee and Arthur Greenwood, leader and deputy leader of the Labour Party, respectively, went on as members of the War Cabinet to give Churchill as Prime Minister, the moral support he needed to face down the appeasers in his party, who would have negotiated a peace with Hitler that might have included giving away Malta and Gibraltar, possibly even India, for another scrap of paper.
Greenwood had, memorably, spoken for England in a debate on 2nd September 1939:
“I wonder how long we are prepared to vacillate at a time when Britain and all that Britain stands for, and human civilization, are in peril?”
A responsible Opposition, wishing to look like a Government in waiting does not put party before country at a time of crisis.
Let us now move on from May 1940 to Trafalgar Square on 4th November 1956 and Aneurin Bevan mocking the Prime Minister over his handling of President Nasser and the Suez Canal:
“Sir Anthony Eden has been pretending that he is now invading Egypt in order to strengthen the United Nations. Every burglar of course could say the same thing, he could argue that he was entering the house in order to train the police. So, if Sir Anthony Eden is sincere in what he is saying, and he may be, then he is too stupid to be a Prime Minister.”
Bevan then went on to call on the Prime Minister to resign:
Doing the right thing is responsible behaviour, even if it may not prove to be of advantage to one’s party and, in the long run as Keynes observed, we are all dead.
Jack Profumo, a Tory MP of only two months after winning a by election in March 1940, defied his party’s three line whip and voted against Neville Chamberlain’s Government in the Norway Debate.
Profumo’s vote enraged the Government Chief Whip, David Margesson, who said to him:
“I can tell you this, you utterly contemptible little shit. On every morning that you wake up for the rest of your life you will be ashamed of what you did last night.”
Profumo later remarked that Margesson, “couldn’t have been more wrong”.
But Profumo was no saint.
The newly elected leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, was initially advised by his colleagues in early 1963 to have nothing to do with a fellow MP’s private dossier on the Profumo rumours. On 21st March, however, with the press furore over the “missing witness” at its height, the party changed its stance. During a House of Commons debate, George Wigg MP used parliamentary privilege to ask the Home Secretary to categorically deny the truth of rumours connecting “a minister” to Keeler, Rice-Davies and the Edgecombe shooting. He did not name Profumo, who was not in the House. Later in the debate Barbara Castle, the Labour MP for Blackburn, referred to the “missing witness” and hinted at a possible perversion of justice. The Home Secretary, Henry Brooke, refused to comment, adding that Wigg and Castle should “seek other means of making these insinuations if they are prepared to substantiate them”.
Jack Profumo eventually resigned from office and Parliament and devoted the rest of his life to good works, but then he went to Harrow, Churchill’s alma mater, and not Eton, but like Johnson, he did go to Oxford and was a member of the Bullingdon Club.
In the debate on 17th June 1963 following Profumo’s resignation, Wilson concentrated almost exclusively on the extent to which Macmillan and his colleagues had been dilatory in not identifying a clear security risk arising from Profumo’s association with Ward and his circle. Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, responded that he should not be held culpable for believing a colleague who had repeatedly asserted his innocence. He mentioned the false allegations against a certain Galbraith, and the failure of the security services to share their detailed information with him.
In the general debate, the sexual aspects of the scandal were fully discussed. Most Conservatives, whatever their reservations, were supportive of Macmillan, with only Nigel Birch, the Conservative MP for West Flintshire, suggesting that he should consider retirement.
In the subsequent vote on the government’s handling of the affair, 27 Conservatives abstained, reducing the government’s majority to 69. Most newspapers considered the extent of the defection significant, and several forecast that Macmillan would soon resign.
Macmillan did leave office in October 1963.
Lord Denning concluded his report on the Profumo Affair:
“This was an unprecedented situation for which the machinery of government did not cater. It was, in the view of the security service, not a case of security risk, but of moral misbehaviour by a minister. And we have no machinery to deal with it.”
I am not allergic to the use of focus groups, but Labour declined to call for Matt Hancock’s resignation earlier in 2021, because their soundings amongst the party’s (Red Wall inclined?) focus groups came out against calling for a Minister’s resignation at that time.
Hancock almost went under his own steam.
Intriguingly, Johnson tried for a day or two after Hancock had quit to claim that he had fired Hancock so clearly he felt blindsided by The Sun.
And who took advantage of the Right Reverend Matt Hancock MP for West Suffolk reading a lesson on “Faith and Values in Public Life”, in a church in his constituency in 2018?
A choice line from Hancock’s sermon is:
“I think Britain should be proud that we have one of the most robustly accountable systems of Government of all the countries in the world.”
The sermon is still up on his website.
Are there no similar skeletons in Boris Johnson’s cupboard for a skilful Opposition to expose to the light of day in a set piece Commons debate?
“But in the end, it’s for the Tory party to decide what they want to do about Boris Johnson.”
Is it really, though?
“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.”
Our country is currently going through the equivalent of May 1940 (Covid), Suez (Hard Brexit) and Profumo (scandal and corruption) all at the same time.
Should the Conservative Party drive Boris Johnson out of Number Ten then Sir Keir Starmer QC will not even be able to claim a share in the kill.
Sir Keir Starmer QC could, however, call on the Parliamentary Conservative Party to sack Johnson for the good of the country.
If Sir Keir Starmer QC is not willing to take a risk now and then, make a decision without a guarantee of 100% success then is he really suited to taking on the role of Prime Minister?
The Duke of Wellington once observed, “All the business of war, and indeed all the business of life, is to endeavour to find out what you don’t know by what you do; that’s what I called ‘guessing what was at the other side of the hill’.”
And the Duke was no way near as cautious as many like to believe.
Sir Keir Starmer QC should consider Oliver Cromwell’s words when he next makes a political virtue out of his timidity, his lack of a killer instinct.
“You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”
I do not think, that when all that is left to him is to fall, that nothing in Boris Johnson’s political life will become him like his leaving of it.
Quite the opposite, in fact, he will rage, rage against the dying of the light; against the disloyalty of those, he walked all over to get to the highest office and at the patent unfairness of a world that has always denied him the palms which he believes are his due, but which lesser mortals have kept on insisting he earns.
Whether on leaving Number Ten, Boris Johnson resigns, triggering a by election or squats on the backbenches, in the manner of Edward Heath, his exit from the highest office of the land which he so desired, but which on taking up he decided he did not enjoy, is a gift to an Opposition, ready, willing and able to seize the moment.
“The Labour leader said it was more important to show unity in the face of Russian aggression.”
Anyone got a copy of one of Sir Keir Starmer QC’s school reports?