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Good morning. Four day weekends are rather lovely, aren’t they? We should have more of them. Certainly Boris Johnson will feel that way, I’m sure. The prime minister faces a confidence vote in his leadership this evening. Some thoughts on that, plus the Queen’s rather more successful political project.
The devil you know
The threshold has been reached! At least 15 per cent of the parliamentary party have written letters calling for a confidence vote in Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative party and the vote will be held tonight from 6-8pm. The Tory party rule book leaves control over the timing of a vote in the hands of the sitting leader, and Johnson has, sensibly, chosen to go for a speedy vote. The Tory rebels need 180 votes in order to remove Johnson from office.
The prime minister’s biggest asset is also his biggest problem: that his opponents in the parliamentary party span the Conservative party’s traditions. They include MPs who defied his will to prevent a no-deal Brexit in the last parliament and the hardest of Leave ultras. The rebellion spans MPs from the party’s leftmost flank all the way out to its right. And it brings together MPs from across every intake, from veterans first elected in the 1980s to newbies from 2019.
But the problem the rebels have is that, while they agree that Johnson needs to go, they have no clarity on who they would like to replace him. That lack of certainty is the biggest reason why Johnson ought to see off a vote of confidence in his leadership, and by holding it as quickly as he can, he has maximised the chances of that happening.
While no Conservative leader wants a confidence vote against them, given the multiple crises and electoral challenges facing the prime minister (George Parker and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe have written a brilliant Big Read on those), the timing is about as good as it could be for Johnson. For his internal opponents, the moment of reckoning may well have come too soon.
Long to reign over us?
Someone having a better weekend of it than the prime minister: Queen Elizabeth II.
The paradox of the Queen’s political success is that we mostly don’t think of the monarch as political. But, of course, the question of whether to have a constitutional monarchy, a republic or something else entirely is a political question. And a big part of the Queen’s success is that UK politics is a colder home to republicanism now than it was in the 19th century. She has also managed to pitch the monarchy as “above politics” when it is in fact anything but.
The biggest tribute to the Queen’s political project wasn’t anything that happened over the jubilee weekend. Actually, it was during the 2019 general election: when the then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn got asked about whether he watches the Queen’s Speech on Christmas Day, he felt obliged to claim “usually we have it on”. The next best tribute came in a poll this weekend by Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks which showed that the Queen is more popular in the Republic of Ireland than any of the country’s own politicians.
Glance across the rest of Europe, where so many monarchs have been diminished, displaced or actively decapitated, and you can see that the Queen’s popularity isn’t inevitable.
One fairly safe political prediction is that we are nearer the end of the Queen’s reign than the beginning, and because she is more popular than the rest of the royal family, that, inevitably, leads to speculation that the British monarchy’s time might be nearer the end rather than the beginning.
Henry Mance made a smart observation in FT Weekend that the Queen, “unlike any other royal, except perhaps Anne, has never chafed at service”, and it seems to me the UK and Westminster in particular will probably be a warmer home for republicans after the Queen than it is at the moment. (Though it would be hard for it to get any colder while still retaining the trappings of a liberal democracy, quite frankly.)
But I’m not convinced that we should expect that UK republicanism will become a more viable force after the age of Queen Elizabeth II. Although Prince Charles is nowhere near as popular as his mother, and neither is Prince William, both of them have approval ratings that any UK politician would kill for.
The rare joint public appearance yesterday of the Queen, Prince Charles, Prince William and Prince George — the monarch and her three closest heirs all in one place together — will, I think, only serve to boost Charles’s popularity.
That might be more uncomfortable for government ministers than it is for the crown. Part of “The Firm’s” political success has been in finding topics that are political, but aren’t divisive, such as their embrace of conservationism and Prince William’s campaigning on mental health. These are public policy issues but because in a UK context they are sufficiently accepted by almost all politicians, the royals can get involved.
We know that one of Charles’s preoccupations is climate change and William made the protection of our planet one of his repeated themes too, including at the platinum jubilee.
One underrated force in UK politics is that the country’s net zero target is coming under question from within the Conservative party. We shouldn’t rule out, if that continues, that a tenser relationship between the royal family and the Tory party becomes a surprising constant after the age of Queen Elizabeth II.
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I had a very lovely long weekend, including a wonderful lunch by Decatur under a railway arch. Its plans to open a permanent restaurant in east London were sadly put on hold during the pandemic. But that’s good news for everyone else in the UK, as they are currently doing boil-at-home kits that are almost as delicious as the food they put on at various pop-ups and temporary residencies. You can order food to your door and sign-up to be notified of their various pop-up restaurants on their website.