British prime minister

After the referendum: How Johnson's career could end

Paul Mason08. Juni 2022
A demonstrator holds a placard outside the Houses of Parliament.
A demonstrator holds a placard outside the Houses of Parliament.
After winning the referendum Boris Johnson remains prime minister. But his political career could soon be over. At the latest for the Tories party conference in October.

Boris Johnson survived a Conservative back-bench rebellion on 6 June – but by a much slimmer margin than he expected. Some 41% of his MPs declared him, effectively, unfit for office. The Sun - a conservative supporting tabloid called it the Night of the Blond Knives.

Johnson benefits from disunity among his opponents 

Johnson only escaped defeat because, though the Conservatives are slumping in the polls after revelations about Covid lawbreaking, the rival factions in the party do not have a clear alternative project. They are a mixture of extreme Brexiteers, who believe Johnson should rip up the Northern Ireland Protocol and pursue radical de-regulation; so-called One Nation Conservatives, who combine social conservatism with a paternalistic approach on social justice; and the remnants of the party's pro-EU wing.

Each of them has a potential alternative leader in mind, but to install that leader, they would have to recruit a large number of MPs who are currently supporting Johnson, and on the government payroll. And that is why he survives. But, though he emerged from the vote declaring he will now “draw a line” and “focus” on the important stuff, this looks impossible.

Symbolic loss in sight

On 23 June there will be two iconic by-elections, each caused by the sitting Conservative MP being caught in a sex scandal. In Wakefield, a working class town in northern England won by the Conservatives in 2019, polls are now showing a 20-point lead for Labour. Meanwhile in Tiverton, a rural, traditionally Conservative seat in south-West England, the Tories may lose to the Liberal Democrats. If beaten in both towns, this will be a symbolic loss for Johnson – because it proves his support is ebbing away both among the affluent, natural conservatives and the poorer voters who turned to the Conservatives over Brexit. Though their lives and cultures are different, what's cut through to both these groups is outrage, not only over law-breaking but over Johnson's lies to parliament.

The Conservatives are not just fragmenting and losing support. Having achieved Brexit, they have triggered a trade downturn, acute labour shortages and sterling has been compared to an "emerging market currency". But they have no unifying objective, nor any clear vision of the future. 

Backbencher with a clear statement

The backbencher Jesse Norman, who voted no confidence in Johnson and is part of the One Nation faction, summed up the problem in a bitter open letter: "Under you, the government has no sense of mission. It has a large majority but no long-term plan... Rather, you are simply seeking to campaign, to keep changing the subject and to create political and cultural dividing lines mainly for your advantage". With the 9 % inflation rate eating into middle class incomes, this problem of drift and indecisiveness will haunt Johnson until he is ousted, most likely just before or just after the Conservative Party conference in October.

Johnson has ruled mainly through aspirational soundbites: he would “level up” the depressed former industrial areas of Northern England. Britain would become a “science and technology superpower”. It would host a “trillion dollar tech company”. It would build a new nuclear power station every year. But none of it ever happens. Though the Johnson philosophy is mildly dirigiste, creating myriad industrial plans and strategies, the Conservative party in office - and a civil service whose attitudes closely align with it - cannot effectively direct the market sector. It is too weak, deregulated and un-coordinated to respond to their plans, which always turn out to be more like suggestions than instructions.

No plan for the economy

And so the ecomomy stagnates. To insulate the dilapidated 19th century, brick built terraced homes that populate the former industrial heartlands, would need a massive injection of state funding. But there is none.

To complete even one new nuclear power station – something the British government has not achieved for 20 years – would need capital and labour that is not currently available, and profits that could only be generated by state diktat. So the power stations remain a dream. To become a science superpower, the government would have to improve massively the takeup of advanced mathematics in schools, and the hard science disciplines in Universities, and launch a European-style industrial strategy. But it will not.

Cognitive dissonance among the Tories

The root of the problem is cognitive dissonance. Even as the state becomes central to post-Covid and post-Lehman Brothers capitalism, they continue to believe state direction, control and ownership are philosophically wrong. They believe, at the same time, in a directive state and a small state; in low taxation and high borrowing. They are opposed to government debt but they have issued more of it even than the left-wing Labour manifesto of 2019 promised.

So even as finance minister Rishi Sunak borrows tens of billions to fund new spending and subsidies, to help households cope with energy inflation, the money flows upwards, into the profits of privatised energy providers, and into the soaring rents of apartment owners, and outrageously hight bus and train fares in the privatised transport sector.

a deal could remove Johnson

A sustained opinion poll slump will not, on its own remove Johnson. Indeed, the whole purpose of the government operation has become focused on keeping him in power. What will finally remove him is when two of the anti-Johnson factions do some kind of deal, in the name of electoral survival. The natural allies are the One Nation paternalists and the hard Brexiteers. Their prime objectives are not incompatible so long as they are prepared to go on borrowing and spending, to make up for weak growth and high inequality. 

The most likely leaders of such an alliance would be Liz Truss, the foreign secretary or Penny Mordaunt, former defence minister. They might attract One Nation MPs by making pledges on welfare, incomes and housing, but that would mean ditching the logic of austerity and deregulation.

The only certainty is that Johnson will go on trying to bluff, lie and improvise his way out of trouble. It is hard to see any route back to popularity for him.

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