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We told them before! Express front page from 1990 becomes MPs' rallying cry to save Boris

NewsWe told them before! Express front page from 1990 becomes MPs' rallying cry to save Boris

Boris Johnson and Express front cover

Boris Johnson and the Maggie front page from 1990. (Image: PA)

An image of this newspaper’s famous splash headline “What Have They Done?” from the final days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership was being circulated in text messages among ministers and backbenchers yesterday to make rebels think again.

Supporters of the Prime Minister said the words are a chilling warning from history about the long-term damage to the Conservative Party caused by toppling a leader with a proven knack for electoral success.

One Tory MP said: “This is more than apt. When Mrs Thatcher was brought down, it led to years of infighting in the Conservative Party.

“I fear that any plotting against Boris will result in the same divisions.”

Another added: “This Express headline is a warning of where bringing down a prime minister can lead. Some of our newer MPs are letting themselves get spooked by a bit of criticism. They need to toughen up.”

The image of the Express page one from November 23 1990s is being circulated as part of an effort among loyalist Tories to get behind the Prime Minister.

At the time, the headline was widely seen as summing up the despair of many grassroots Tory supporters and voters at the Cabinet ministers who forced Mrs Thatcher to resign.

Margaret Thatcher

Margaret Thatcher giving her last speech as Prime Minister. (Image: In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images)

It was printed the day after the outgoing premier delivered a bravura performance at Prime Minister’s Questions shortly after announcing her resignation.

Mr Johnson’s allies have seized on the image amid weeks of leadership speculation with some rebel MPs demanding a confidence vote in his leadership of the Conservative Party.

Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burn, an ally of Mr Johnson who was also a close friend of Mrs Thatcher in her later years, said Tory MPs considering submitting in letters of no confidence in his leadership should follow the Express headline by asking themselves: “What are we doing?”

Mr Burns told today’s edition of the Chopper’s Politics podcast that he is convinced Mr Johnson will see off the threat.

“Not only is he going to survive, he is going to thrive. There was a headline the day after Margaret Thatcher resigned in the Daily Express, a picture of her standing outside No10 with a huge bouquet of flowers.

MP Conor Burn and the Prime Minister.

MP Conor Burn and the Prime Minister. (Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

“And it was the day after her amazing, no confidence speech and the headline was simply ‘What have they done?’

“I think there was a sense in the parliamentary party over the last 10 days. ‘What are we doing?’ And I think colleagues have pulled back. So I think he will get through this.

“I think he will rededicate himself to delivering for the British people. And I am absolutely confident that not only will he lead us into the next general election, he will win the next general election handsomely for the Conservative Party and for the United Kingdom.”

One recent attempted coup – dubbed the Pork Pie Plot at Westminster because of the alleged involvement of the MP representing Melton Mowbray – collapsed when backbencher Christian Wakeford, one of the key conspirators, defected to Labour.

Other foes of Mr Johnson are believed to be poised to submit letters to officials of the party’s powerful 1922 Committee demanding a confidence vote immediately after the long-expected Cabinet Office report into allegations of lockdown breaches in Downing Street is published.

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But some Tories believe momentum is now draining out of the plot to oust the Prime Minister.

One MP said: “A lot of the anger about the Downing Street party claims appears to be dissipating. Some colleagues listened to the claims about the Prime Minister being given a birthday cake and are beginning to question what all the fuss is about.”

With their fightback gathering momentum, morale among loyalist Tories was further boosted yesterday by an opinion poll showing their party significantly narrowing the gap on Labour.

The survey by Redfield & Wilton Strategies gave Labour a 41% share of support, down two points over the last week, and the Tories 34%, up four points.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries yesterday became the second Cabinet minister to warn that ousting the Prime Minister could trigger a general election.

Backing her Cabinet colleague Jacob Rees-Mogg, she hit back at critics who claimed a handover of power at Number 10 did not require an election.

Nadine Dorries

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries (Image: Rob Pinney/Getty Images)

Arguing that politics had changed dramatically since the era when Gordon Brown took over from Tony Blair, she wrote on Twitter: “Blair as example of why we won’t need GE is wrong.

“It was yonks ago Blair to Brown smooth pre announced handover, no leadership election.

“Brown was still pressured to go, bottled it and then lost. V different times pre rolling 24hr news / social media.”

Earlier this week, Mr Rees-Mogg, the Commons Leader, said the UK now had an “essentially a presidential system”, so any new leader would need their own mandate from the electorate.

His words were seen as a warning to rebel MPs not to risk a snap election that could see them losing their seats.

In the Commons yesterday, Mr Rees-Mogg said: “The reality is that the British elector looks to a leader, and it is very pleased with the leader that it has got.”


Analysis by Patrick O’Flynn

Even in the internet age, with all its social media and trendy websites, sometimes it takes the front page of a newspaper to get to the heart of a matter.

So no wonder allies of Boris Johnson are showing parliamentary colleagues copies of a famous front page published by the Daily Express when their predecessors brought down Margaret Thatcher in 1990.

Just four words, each of four letters, were required to sum up the moment. “What have they done?” asked this newspaper about the toppling of a giant figure.

It must have seemed like a good idea at the time to remove from office a multiple election winner on the grounds that she had begun acting rather imperiously and started to block their ambitions to take Britain even deeper into the orbit of Brussels.

And in truth some will have felt vindicated when her successor, John Major, scraped an election win in 1992, turning the majority he inherited from her of more than 100 into a wafer thin one of 21. But that proved to be the ultimate political “dead cat bounce”.

The divisions left by her toppling tipped the Tories into a civil war and played a large role in the landslide victories of Labour and Tony Blair.

Tony Blair

Tony Blair became PM in 1997. (Image: Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs via Getty Images)

One reason so many active Tories remember that Express front page is that it followed a tour-de-force Commons farewell from Thatcher. But it came too late for the MPs to reverse what they had done.

It is not too late for Tory MPs this time round to step back from a disastrous course, following a similar tour-de-force by Boris Johnson on Wednesday.

The past two years have seen him dealt a formidably difficult hand. He surely deserves the chance now to put the foundations in place for the “levelling-up” mission that was so central a part of his message in 2019.

His colleagues should think very carefully about the rash course of action many of them have been talked into contemplating.

They still have time to snap out of it, but only just.


Tory MPs are at their panicky worst, says SIR BERNARD INGHAM

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has led the world with a life-saving vaccination programme. (Image: CARL RECINE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

On the face of it, Boris Johnson does not stand a chance.

If Tory MPs could get rid of Margaret Thatcher after she had rescued the nation from an economic fate worse than death at the hands of power-abusive trade unions, Boris has had it.

The headline “What Have They Done?” certainly seems ripe for another dusting off.

It is true that Boris has only two years in No 10 under his belt compared with Mrs Thatcher’s eleven.

But his two have been historic. He ended the menace of Britain being subjected to a government led by Jeremy Corbyn by winning the best Tory election majority since Mrs Thatcher’s in 1987.

Then he not merely coped with a pandemic, but led the world with a life-saving vaccination programme.

He has also delivered Brexit against all the odds and as a result is presiding over one of the strongest economic recoveries in the world.

Yet what do we find? Relentless efforts to hound him out of office because of foolish parties in No 10 during the Covid lockdowns. The details have apparently been leaked by an unelected political adviser.

Worse still, we have Michael Heseltine at it again. After helping to remove Mrs Thatcher because of her Euro-scepticism, he is now hoping Boris’s demise will pave the way for our return to subjection to Brussels.

The Tory rebels risk clearing the way for a Keir Starmer government whose strings would be pulled by the hard Left.

And they are playing these self-centred games, without a credible alternative leader.

It would be incredible if we had not seen Tory MPs at their panicky worst before. They seem to have learnt nothing over the past 30 years. There is still a grave risk that many Tory MPs, like their predecessors in 1990, are completely daft.

If so, by next week we will see the sad spectacle of them asking themselves once again: “What Have We Done?” And we will all pay the price.

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