How Boris Johnson became Britain’s most powerful prime minister since Tony Blair
Tory leader’s path to an 80-seat majority involved ambition and broken promises
British prime minister Boris Johnson gives a thumbs up after delivering his speech during the Conservative Party conference at the Manchester Convention Centre, Britain. File photograph: Stefan Rousseau/Pool/EPA
When Boris Johnson returned to Westminster in triumph after the general election, he was cheered into the Commons chamber by his 365 Conservative MPs, almost one in three of whom were newly elected. Congratulating Lindsay Hoyle on his election as speaker, the prime minister surveyed the green benches around him.
“I mean no disrespect to those who are no longer with us when I say that I think this parliament is a vast improvement on its predecessor. Indeed, I would say it is one of the best parliaments that this country has ever produced,” he said.
“After 3½ years of wrangling and division, the government will do whatever we can to reach out across the House to find common ground, to heal the divisions of our country and to find a new and generous spirit in which we conduct all our political dealings with one another that will last beyond the immediate season of Christmas goodwill.”
The election gave Johnson an 80-seat majority that secures his grip on the keys of 10 Downing Street for the next five years and ensures that he can pursue his political agenda unhindered by parliament. He will be able to take Britain out of the European Union at the end of January, oversee a radical overhaul of the machinery of government in Whitehall and shift investment away from London towards the towns and villages of the midlands and the north of England that gave him his victory.
Twelve months before the election, Johnson’s progress to power suffered a disruption when his allies in the European Research Group (ERG) of backbench Conservative Brexiteers staged a botched coup against Theresa May. May won that leadership contest comfortably and, after initially calling for her to resign regardless, ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg acknowledged that his faction had been defeated and that her position as prime minister was secure.
Johnson had resigned as foreign secretary a few months earlier in protest against May’s Chequers proposals, which would have kept Britain aligned with EU regulations after Brexit. He resumed his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph, using it to snipe at May’s approach to Brexit and to cultivate his image as an alternative leader.
Johnson also began ingratiating himself with the Conservative party membership and with their confidence-and-supply partners in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). He was the star attraction at the DUP’s annual conference in November 2018, where he denounced May’s withdrawal agreement and its Northern Ireland backstop.
May’s backstop, a default option to avoid a hard Border in Ireland after Brexit, would have kept the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU, but Northern Ireland would also remain aligned with some EU regulations that would not apply to England, Scotland and Wales.
“We would be damaging the fabric of the union with regulatory checks and even customs controls between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on top of those extra regulatory checks down the Irish Sea that are already envisaged in the withdrawal agreement,” he said.
”Now, I have to tell you that no British Conservative government could or should sign up to any such arrangement.”
The DUP put their trust in Johnson and during the first half of 2019 they connived with the ERG to undermine May, who resigned as Conservative leader in June.
When the leadership contest began, Johnson was perceived to be popular among the membership but viewed with suspicion by MPs. In the first stage, however, his team won endorsements from MPs on every side of the party and he emerged well ahead of rival Jeremy Hunt in the parliamentary ballot before they faced off in the membership vote.
Johnson’s final victory was easy, defeating Hunt by 66 per cent to 34 per cent, but he led a party at Westminster without a majority and that needed the DUP’s 10 votes to pass any legislation. He made his parliamentary position much worse in September when he removed the whip from 21 Conservative MPs, including former chancellors Ken Clarke and Philip Hammond and party grandee Nicholas Soames, Winston Churchill’s grandson.
The 21 had voted against the government in an attempt to rule out a no-deal Brexit, despite Johnson’s pledge to die in a ditch rather than extend Britain’s membership of the EU beyond the end of October. Johnson did not, in fact, want to leave the EU without a deal, and when Labour trapped him in Downing Street by refusing to give him the two-thirds majority he needed for an early election, he started to compromise with Brussels in search of a deal.
The first step was to persuade the DUP to agree that Northern Ireland should remain aligned with EU regulations on goods and agricultural products after Brexit, in order to avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland.
The scale of the Conservative victory exceeded the wildest expectations of Johnson’s campaign
The DUP drew the line at a separate customs regime for Northern Ireland, but after a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar outside Liverpool in mid-October, Johnson agreed to replace the backstop with an arrangement that would see the North following EU customs rules as well as goods regulations after Brexit.
The EU endorsed the revised withdrawal agreement and Johnson brought it back to Westminster, where its second reading was passed by 329 to 299, a majority of 30. But when MPs rejected his breakneck timetable to pass the Bill through parliament, Johnson pulled it and called for a general election to settle the issue.
Labour MPs were reluctant to face the voters in December but Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, who was enjoying a surge in the polls, offered her support for an early election. When the Scottish National Party (SNP), who face the embarrassing prospect of former leader Alex Salmond’s trial on charges of sexual assault in the New Year, followed suit, Jeremy Corbyn also endorsed it.
Johnson campaigned with a level of message discipline that was sometimes offputting, as when he refused to look at a picture of four-year-old Jack Williment-Barr lying on a pile of coats on the floor of an overcrowded hospital emergency department with an oxygen mask next to him. When ITV reporter Joe Pike tried to show him the photograph on his phone, Johnson pocketed the device and only agreed to look at the picture and return the phone when Pike challenged him on it.
The scale of the Conservative victory, demolishing Labour’s so-called Red Wall of seats across the midlands and the north of England and retaining all but a handful of seats in the south of the country, exceeded the wildest expectations of Johnson’s campaign.
Since the election, the prime minister has ruled out extending the post-Brexit transition period beyond the end of December 2020, leaving negotiators only a few months to agree a new trade deal with the EU.
He is set on a constitutional collision course with Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who is demanding a second independence referendum – something Johnson says he will never agree to. But for now, as Labour descends into bitter recrimination over its defeat and prepares for a brutal battle to succeed Corbyn, Johnson can enjoy his apotheosis as Britain’s most powerful prime minister since Tony Blair.