It’s time for Boris Johnson to go, says Keir Starmer. Angela Rayner agrees: ‘Fundamentally the British public are starting to see that Boris isn’t fit to be Prime Minister’. Other members of the shadow cabinet think the same: the PM ‘should do the decent thing and resign now,’ says Labour Anneliese Dodds. But should they be careful for what they wish for?
Whether Labour really wants Johnson to go – at least not until he has fatally damaged his party by its association with a leader many in the public now regard as a blatant liar and hypocrite – is moot. In any case, the party does not get to make the decision: that rests in the hands of 54 Conservative MPs to first initiate a confidence vote and an additional 127 to express their lack of confidence in Johnson as leader in the ensuing ballot.
For a time looking like a dead man walking, a few in Westminster now wonder whether Johnson’s tenure will end that way. Whatever Sue Gray’s report indicates – and regardless of where the Metropolitan Police’s investigations lead – Johnson appears determined to carry on. His hope is that his heroic chutzpah will persuade MPs to rally round and intimidate any potential rivals, so they meekly sit on their hands. His sheer will-to-power might, some believe, see Johnson through this crisis and on to the sunlit uplands of which he used to speak. Frankly, nobody can accurately predict what will happen.
But let us imagine Johnson either avoids a vote of confidence or manages to win it. His party will still be about ten per cent behind Labour and he will still enjoy an appallingly low satisfaction rating – and that’s before energy price rises and National Insurance increases kick in. Quite how Johnson can turn matters around in such a miserable context is moot, but he will likely remain damaged goods for some time: it is a deep hole he needs to dig himself out of. During this period media speculation will be intense about the significance of the latest slick Rishi Sunak meme or another ‘Fizz with Liz’ event: such chatter will challenge any attempt to rebuild his authority. And Johnson will know all about that: he spent much of David Cameron’s time as prime minister trying to make him look bad while ostensibly supporting him.
But what of the direction of a post-party-gate Johnson premiership? For many leading backbenchers had been unimpressed by Johnson’s premiership even before it hit stormy weather. For them, the Prime Minister was not a proper Conservative: he was too willing to spend taxpayers’ money, conceded too much to climate change activists, too slow to give back people their ‘freedom’ from Covid restrictions and was not bullish enough in standing up to Brussels. He might have won them an 80-seat majority by knocking over the Red Wall but the imperative to keep those seats was causing concern: what would Levelling Up cost the party’s traditional supporters in the Blue Wall? So, the party won the Hartlepool by-election last year, but it also lost Chesham and Amersham and then North Shropshire.
A strong, confident Johnson had been able to keep such disquiet at bay, tacking this way and that. Being supremely ambiguous about his ultimate destination, if he had one in mind, he could keep most MPs onside while still being popular in the ex-Red Wall seats, although they were still waiting for the promised Levelling Up. But a Johnson unpopular in the country – and especially with those northern working-class voters especially dismayed by party-gate – is a Samson without his locks.
Operation Red Meat, outlined in mid-January, showed how Johnson believed his leadership could be saved. This included plans to aggressively tackle illegal immigration, lift most Covid restrictions and freeze the BBC licence fee, all of which were designed to appease his more hard-core backbench critics. But this has proved inadequate. Daily Telegraph columnist Allister Heath has now called for Johnson to kick out of Number 10 ‘the neo-socialists, green fanatics and pro-woke crowd’. Heath’s call was endorsed by Lord Frost, until recently Johnson’s chief negotiator with the EU. Having offered his backbenchers some red meat it seems all he has done is give them an appetite for more. What price Levelling Up with a Prime Minister forced to go back to the Thatcherite basics of aiming for a small state and tax cuts?
This Conservative red meat will be, for Labour, meat and drink. Until partygate, Johnson had befuddled Starmer’s party. Accusing them of being the ‘same old Tories’, the ‘nasty party’, as some astute observers had noted, the public did not see Johnson’s party in such terms, largely thanks to the Conservative leader’s idiosyncratic approach to politics, the very one that so disturbs many in his own party.
Should Johnson survive and be forced effectively hand over the direction of his government to those who believe themselves to be true Conservative, Labour will likely be laughing all the way to the ballot box.
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