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LONDON — Where’s the gratitude?
That’s what Boris Johnson’s remaining loyalists want to know as a chunk of the most recent intake of Conservative MPs, elected under his ‘Get Brexit Done’ banner in 2019, rises up against him.
Johnson is on the ropes after a string of damaging revelations about potentially lockdown-busting parties that took place in government offices as voters stayed home to protect loved ones.
Westminster is now aflutter with talk of a “pork pie putsch” after 20 recently elected MPs, one of whom represents the Melton constituency famed for the traditional meat pies, met to talk about ousting the PM through a no-confidence vote.
To cap off a torrid 24 hours for Johnson, a relatively unknown MP from the same 2019 intake then lobbed a hand-grenade the embattled leader’s way, and defected to the opposition Labour Party just before the Tory leader faced a tough House of Commons grilling Wednesday.
“Sadly both you and the Conservative Party as a whole have shown themselves incapable of offering the leadership and government this country deserves,” the defecting Bury South MP, Christian Wakeford, wrote to the PM.
So how did things get so bad between the class of 2019 and Johnson’s No.10 — and are they really angry enough to bring down their leader?
A mixed bunch
The scale of the Conservatives’ election win in 2019 surprised most Westminster observers. The party took control of constituencies in England’s post-industrial north and Midlands — dubbed the “Red Wall” — which had voted Labour since their inception. The party also bagged a crop of traditional marginal seats, and it meant the new lineup in the House of Commons was perhaps the most diverse the Conservatives had ever seen.
The Tories are now an uneasy mix of those with more traditional Conservative backgrounds and recent converts to the Johnson cause — alongside some wild cards who hadn’t expected to be elected.
The new intake included the MP for Ashfield, an ex-miner who previously ran the outgoing Labour MP’s office in the same seat, and the MP for Hyndburn, who was just 24 and joined parliament fresh from her job running a sandwich shop.
The scale of the cultural change is striking. When Johnson got on the wrong side of Marcus Rashford over the Manchester United footballer’s campaign to extend free school meals, he was for the first time leading a party where a significant minority had direct experience of childhood poverty.
State support for the less well-off has already become one of the recurring battlegrounds for Tory rebellions, with many MPs representing deprived areas that made the switch to the Conservatives either voting against the government on cutting welfare — or becoming increasingly jaded.
Yet there’s more to the current Tory unease than a simple blue-collar revolution in the blue corner. The 2019 intake also included a large group of MPs representing dyed-in-the-wool Tory strongholds.
That includes Alicia Kearns, MP for Rutland and Melton, home of the famous Melton Mowbray pork pie, and whose office provided the venue for Tuesday’s mutinous plotting. Her seat has been Conservative for decades, and as one Red Wall MP put it: “The plotting is not just by us, but those sat on safe seats in leafy hires […] who’d rather the party looked more like them.”
The pandemic effect
The class of 2019 also came of age in highly unusual times.
Only three months after they were elected, the coronavirus pandemic hit and, soon afterward, parliament began to sit virtually. Many found they were deprived of the chance to rub shoulders with fellow MPs and build relationships. As a result, Conservative whips found them harder to control.
“The whips don’t know their flocks, because we haven’t been here for the last two years,” explained one former whip.
One 2019 MP said some of the new entrants not involved in politics before their election had found it very difficult to form links with senior colleagues.
“Those who haven’t really thrown themselves into select committees, where you automatically make friendships with older generations who are on the same committee, have found it more difficult than others,” they said.
It has always been a big adjustment to join parliament, bringing with it the strain of spending more than half the week hundreds of miles away from your family. But there’s a view among Tories that the transition was made worse by the pandemic.
“It has been exacerbated by COVID because people haven’t been able to have those normal social interactions,” the same MP added.
When parliament went back to sitting as normal, whips and ministers began to put meetings in the diary in an effort to reach out to MPs and hug them a little closer.
However, those endeavors soon went up in smoke after Johnson backed a bid to get one of his own veteran MPs off the hook for breaking lobbying rules. The doomed defense of Owen Paterson was led by the party’s old guard, who campaigned hard for younger members to row in behind them.
The government eventually had to drop the whole bid, described by one 2019 MP as “an absolute clusterfuck that they knowingly walked into.”
A former minister argued that the Paterson affair is having lasting consequences, as more experienced members of the party would normally be expected to “calm things down” in the event of any leadership challenge. Instead, he said, they had “lost any shred of credibility” by rowing in behind Paterson.
The fear factor
Another, more basic reason is driving the new generation’s disloyalty to Johnson — they are afraid for their seats.
Labour, behind the Tories just months ago, now leads by 9 points according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. That could see the Tories obliterated in the Red Wall seats if repeated at an election.
“They came in thinking [Johnson] had some kind of electoral angel dust,” said one long-serving Tory. “That has all gone now and so a lot of them are feeling vulnerable. They probably expected politics to be a bit more grown up.”
This is where the real bitterness comes in from Johnson’s defenders. His foot soldiers believe the newbies have him to thank for being in parliament at all. The new MPs believe, in turn, that he owes them.
As one Conservative MP told POLITICO’s London Playbook: “The MPs involved in the pork pie plot really are ungrateful rookies. Half of them wouldn’t have won their seats without Boris.”
Yet another 2019 MP said the senior figures need to listen to MPs on the ground because “our future is in the Red Wall — all the polling tells us that.”
It’s a narrative Labour is keen to push. Following Wakeford’s defection, an opposition official felt emboldened to say: “The Red Wall has already disintegrated. All the former Labour voters never saw themselves as voting Tory, they voted Boris. Now he’s a busted flush they’ll not go back.”
PRIME MINISTER BORIS JOHNSON APPROVAL RATING
For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.
The grandee factor
The bad news for Johnson is that it’s not just the upstarts out to get him. Former Cabinet minister David Davis stunned the Commons by urging Johnson to “for God’s sake man, go!” during Prime Minister’s Questions.
The plotting is far from over. MPs hung about in clusters in parliament’s darker corners Wednesday, scurrying away at the approach of a journalist, while Johnson’s acolytes patrolled the main atrium and central lobby, looking for reporters they could talk up the boss to.
For now, no killer blow has been landed. Wakeford’s defection could actually help Johnson somewhat by reminding Tories of their party loyalties. Another Conservative, Lee Anderson, said: “I guess if anybody was going to defect it would be Christian Wakeford … I say good riddance to bad rubbish.”
Plenty more in the party think the insurrectionists have gone over the top too soon. One ex-minister predicted they would be stymied “because they have no idea what to do next or who they would prefer.”
Another senior MP who is not a Johnsonian diehard said: “Some of these ‘pork pie-rs’ are getting high on the adrenaline of change rather than thinking through the implications for party and government.”
Johnson’s dilemma could get a whole lot trickier next week, when an official report into the claims of lockdown parties is due. The senior MP warned colleagues to wait for Johnson’s statement after the report. But they warned: “If the response is shit, then that is a different story.”
Emilio Casalicchio and Eleni Courea contributed reporting.