If Prime Minister BoJo wants to know how to grow a political backbone when it comes to a war of words, may I draw on my experiences as a Presbyterian minister’s son come journalist:
Put bluntly, if you can survive the rough and tumble of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland as a minister’s son, you can survive any crisis in life!
However, for poor under-fire BoJo, what may have sealed his fate is what was until a few days ago, one of the safest Tory seats in the Commons - North Shropshire.
It has been true blue Tory for decades and the by-election this month was caused by the resignation of its MP, Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, and a victim of the Tory sleaze tsunami.
What should have been a stroll in the park electorally for the Conservative party, turned into a humiliating referendum on BoJo’s premiership as a Tory majority of almost 23,000 evaporated into a Liberal Democrat majority of around 5,000.
In short, that week’s Commons rebellion by around 100 Tory MPs has spread like a political virus into the constituencies as the voters of North Shropshire delivered, not merely a political bloody nose to Boris, but in reality a very severe political knee-capping.
Okay, Tory spin doctors will say it is only one by-election defeat and it may not have too serious consequences given Boris’ overall Commons majority - even with a 100-strong rebellion.
It has become clear that Boris’ gamble on a national crusade of ‘vaccination rather than restrictions’ is simply not cutting the mustard with the nation.
Essential, Boris has failed to read the warning signs delivered to him in an earlier Parliamentary by-election this month - in Old Bexley and Sidcup, another Tory safe seat.
It had been held by another former NIO Secretary of State, the popular James Brokenshire, who passed away with cancer earlier this year.
Put bluntly, the sympathy vote did not materialise and the Tories saw Brokenshire’s 19,000 vote majority slashed to just 4,000, reducing this Commons seat to a potential Tory marginal.
Over his Christmas dinner, Boris will have to dream up of some new public plan to restore Tory, cabinet and national confidence in his leadership. Rumours already abound of potential coups and successors conducting unofficial hustings.
Boris must take careful note of the size of the Commons rebellion by his own party. Could he be reduced to the option forced on his predecessor - Theresa May - when she had to rely on a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement with the DUP to survive, until the Paisley-formed movement eventually did a Brutus on her?
After a series of gaffes and blunders, and in spite of his Maggie Thatcher-style Commons majority, Johnston will be praying his daughter’s birth deflects much of the heat he and his party have suffered in recent weeks.
First it was the Tory sleaze tsunami; then the demolition derby car-crash speech to CBI leaders, and now the PR apocalypse following the leaking of a video which sparked rumours that Number 10 staff had held a party in Downing Street in December 2020 while the rest of the nation was in various stages of Covid restrictions.
That video has already cost his personal spokesperson Allegra Stratton her influential job as she attempted to defuse the crisis with a tearful resignation address, prompting suspicions that she has been the political sacrificial lamb to protect Johnston’s premiership.
Johnston needs to remember that although he enjoys a Commons-style majority akin to former Conservative Prime Minister Thatcher, it did not prevent the Iron Lady from being toppled in a coup from the Tory back benches.
As his premiership stumbles from gaffe to gaffe, Johnston must be wondering when rumblings among the highly powerful Tory back bench 1922 Committee of MPs deteriorate into an open revolt.
Accompanied by key medical advisers, Johnston used a recent press conference at 10 Downing Street to unveil his so-called Plan B to combat the spread of the latest Covid variant, Omicron. But will the nation heed his advice given the scandal of the ‘Partygate’ video?
Earlier this month, Johnston faced one of the most bruising Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons of his premiership thus far as Labour and the Scottish Nationalists landed verbal blow after verbal blow on him to the point where sharp criticism deteriorated into calls for resignation.
His supporters will point to the fact that he issued an apology to fellow MPs during those heated Commons exchanges. But the perception is that the apology was more aimed at stifling the Tory rebellion and placating the 1922 Committee rather than a heartfelt plea to the nation for forgiveness.
His new babe may save him through the Commons Christmas recess, but a more public declaration of remorse is needed to steady the Tory party and rebuild trust within the nation. What is urgently needed is not a baby deflection, not a Brexit distraction, but Johnston to personally – and alone – host a Downing Street press conference in which he unreservedly apologises ‘live’ on air to the British nation.
While further internal inquiries into ‘Partygate’ may also see other Tory staff members’ heads roll as scapegoats are sought in the ‘Blame Game to save Boris’, Johnston must categorically prove he is still a credible leader of his party, his cabinet and ultimately the United Kingdom.
To ignore such a humiliating gesture will only fuel the perception that his premiership is suffering the political agony of ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
In his bid to ‘save Christmas’ under his contentious Plan B, the ordinary folk – and ultimately the voters – may well throw the advice of Plan B back in Johnston’s face with the view, ‘well if Downing Street can flaunt the Covid rules, so can we!’
If this scenario becomes a reality, and Omicron cannot be at least contained, leading to the unfolding of a further Greek tragedy as yet more Covid mutations and variants emerge, at what point does a rebellion of the people become a very serious revolt both of backbench MPs and grassroots Tory activists against Johnston’s leadership?
Could it ultimately lead to a new Labour Government by default – not that Labour have wonderful policies, but that the bandwagon known as the Tory sleaze tsunami hurls the Conservatives out of power at the next General Election, especially if Johnston was to lose a confidence vote in the Commons?
This doomsday scenario and Johnston’s political Armageddon can be avoided – not by photos of him kissing his new-born daughter, but by humbly and publicly saying three words to the UK – ‘I am sorry.’ The question remains, has Johnston the will and savvy to take this courageous step?
Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter
Listen to commentator Dr John Coulter’s programme, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 10.15 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM. Listen online.