LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Boris Johnson leaves his grace-and-favour residence in Carlton Gardens near Buckingham Palace on July 18, 2018 in London, England. The Former Foreign Secretary is expected to make his first speech today after resigning from government 9 days ago. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson’s political honeymoon is not over yet. But it’s that part of the holiday where, a little sunburnt, you start checking work emails again.
Friday’s result in the Brecon and Radnorshire byelection – a heavy loss of a Conservative seat to the Liberal Democrats, leaving his working majority in Parliament at just one MP – is the first sign of reality re-asserting itself.
The problem is not just the numbers, but that is a serious problem. Now a single disgruntled MP could hold the whole government to ransom by threatening to quit or side with Labour in a confidence vote.
There are far more than one disgruntled MPs on the Tory seats in the Commons.
Johnson’s uncompromising purge of government ministers, many of them respected as genuine talents, has left him a rump of smarting egos on his backbench, adding to an already seething and conflicted collection.
The chaos of Theresa May’s final year as prime minister left the whip almost powerless to stop revolts both by Brexiteer ultras and by Remainers.
Brexiteers want to completely erase May’s Brexit deal from existence. Remainers and soft-Brexiteers consider the damage a no-deal exit would cause much worse than the consequences of delay, or compromise, or even a flat rejection of the referendum decision.
The government may still (just) hold a technical majority in a confidence vote, but it lost any sign of a majority on most Brexit-related issues long ago, and though MPs may cheer Johnson’s rhetoric, there are few who have let it change their views.
And there is another problem for Johnson in the byelection result – what it represents.
Tabloids, and the noisier end of the Conservative Brexitsphere, have been full-throated in hailing Johnson’s ascension to Number 10.
They have loved his public attitude: a defiant nationalism, endlessly and creatively praising British pluck, ingenuity and opportunity.
They have loved his message to Brussels: a passive-aggressive, more-sorrow-than-anger accusation that it is they who are forcing the UK into a no-deal Brexit, by refusing to renegotiate in 90 days the divorce deal that was the result of two years’ painstaking work and compromise.
They have proclaimed a “Boris bounce” – indeed, Johnson’s hardline Brexit policy is winning voters back from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, and by some polls he would comfortably win a general election with a fresh, huge majority.
But newspapers are not voters and polls are just polls. Other numbers had Johnson with the lowest net approval rating of anyone to have entered 10 Downing Street (indeed no new party leader since 1980 has started work so unpopular). His party loves him, many others really don’t. He is what’s known on these isles as a Marmite politician.
And he has failed his first concrete electoral test.
Brecon and Radnorshire is the sort of seat that crystallises the advantages and disadvantages of Johnson’s “do or die Brexit” politics.
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