The last days of Boris Johnson and what comes after?
Scottish Review, 8 June 2022
Tory leadership votes of no confidence come around much more frequently nowadays. This is not a misperception, but rooted in the decline in the authority and quality of Tory leaders, the nature of the Tory tribe and the failures of Toryism to address the UK’s underlying issues.
The current debacle and decline of is directly connected to the lack of any redeeming moral and positive qualities in him as a public figure. But this is about much more than ‘Partygate’, the lies he has told Parliament and voters, or indeed the ridiculous comments of Johnson loyalists that he is being held to account over ‘eating cake’ at his Downing Street birthday party.
Johnson, his last remaining supporters insist, is a proven electoral ‘winner’ and therefore indispensable. This focuses on his two victories as London Mayor and 2019 election, but ignores the context. The 2008 and 2012 London victories were against a fading Ken Livingstone, while the 2019 election against Jeremy Corbyn and a bitterly divided Labour. All this proves is that Johnson can beat aged declining Labour left-wingers which is hardly the biggest test of his electoral virility.
Electoral prowess is always relational and always eventually passes. One other Tory ‘winner’ in the past was Anthony Eden who, upon ascending to the leadership after Churchill, went to the country in 1955 and won the highest ever Tory vote in post-war times: 49.7%. They even managed to win a majority of the vote in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland, only Wales preventing the pan-UK vote being over 50%.
Within one year Eden had concocted up the Suez Canal expedition with France and Israel, invaded the canal and lied to the House of Commons. Within months as the UK and France were humiliated and had to militarily withdraw, in January 1957 (under the pretext of ill-health) Eden was forced to resign and Harold Macmillan became Premier. The limits of being an election ‘winner’ did not then extent to excusing lying to the House of Commons and trashing the reputation of the UK.
The emphasis on Johnson’s supposed qualities as a ‘winner’ by his backers underlines that there are very few unconditional Tory supporters in the fold. Most of his support with Tory MPs has been transactional, based on the belief that the appeal of ‘Boris’ takes Tory support into areas of the country which were once immune to it.
This qualified support was born of a desperation in the Tory Party about its electoral prospects. Under Theresa May the party was reduced to a mere 8.8% and fifth place in the 2019 European elections. Faced with electoral oblivion, the Tory parliamentary party in June of that year turned to Johnson, despite knowing too well his lack of moral qualities, fibre or even backbone – and even then only a bare majority (51%) endorsed him. This was enough for him to get to the ballot of party members who supported him decisively against Jeremy Hunt (66:34) in July 2019.
If Johnson isn’t the ‘winner’ he is presented as by his advocates what is he for? What is the point of Johnson as Prime Minister? His supporters take even Tory triumphalism and boosterism into the stratosphere claiming he is ‘the greatest peacetime leader the country has seen’ which is stretching it. Tory MP Lee Anderson has asserted that moves against Johnson are nothing but a ‘witch-hunt led by the BBC’ and fellow Tory Adam Holloway has claimed the BBC have even run images to make Johnson ‘look like Hannibal Lecter’.
All of this shows desperation and the fact that no one even in the Tory Party knows what Johnson stands for apart from self-promotion. Alice Thomson of The Times summed up his period in Downing Street: ‘all he has to show for it is a broken swing, a half-finished Brexit and a few empty bottles of wine on Fridays.’
The Tories, Class, Culture and Democracy
Several other factors are at play in the slow toppling of Johnson. One is the decline in authority in how the Tory leader is seen in the party and country. The Tory Party might be famed for its regicide and getting rid of leaders viewed as an embarrassment or courting electoral disaster, but it used to do it much more quietly and privately. For example, Eden and Macmillan were both forced to resign as Premiers under the cover and excuse of ill-health.
A major factor in all this is the changing nature of the Tory Party in terms of class and how it does democracy. The upper echelons of the Tory Party were once entirely dominated by the narrowest strand of the British establishment and ruling class imaginable. And despite the Eton background of Johnson and private education and privilege of much of his Cabinet, the Tory parliamentary party now has a much wider social background and range of MPs.
Add to this the belated embrace of democracy within the Tory Party and you have a combustible mixture. It took until 1965 for the party to elect its leader rather than it emerge from a ‘magic circle’ of soundings which when they were in power involved the monarch –Ted Heath becoming the first elected leader. And it took until 2001 for the first party leader to be elected by the party membership – the first beneficiary of this being Iain Duncan Smith.
Party democratisation and listening to party activists and members was something which came late to UK political parties in terms of formal processes. When Labour first ventured into this territory in 1981 – creating an electoral college including party members and trade unionists to elect the leader and deputy leader at the time – it was viewed as a threat to parliamentary democracy and led to the Social Democrat ‘Gang of Four’ breakaway. In this one area the Bennites have been influential, but it is a shift which, when the Tories embraced party democracy, contributed to the rise of Boris Johnson who until recently was loved by large parts of the membership.
Underpinning this shift in class, culture and democracy in the Tories is something much more profound. It is not an accident that increasingly Tory leaders face internal rebellions and votes of no confidence. Thatcher in 1990, Major in 1997, Iain Duncan Smith in 2003, Theresa May in 2018 and now Johnson, with IDS being the only one who actually lost a vote. All the others notionally won but up to Johnson were gone in a short time after their pyrrhic victories – in Thatcher’s case within a day.
The problem of the Tory tribe and Toryism
This is not just about the decline in the authority of the leader of changing nature of party rules and structures. Rather the issue is the Tory tribe and Toryism itself. The former is now an increasingly unrepresentative, aged, affluent and white group of people – who number at best 150,000 people – compared to a membership of over three million in the 1950s. Their take on what are the key issues facing the country are increasingly at odds with most of the UK: an obsession with Brexit, immigration and ‘small boats crossing the channel’; invoking Xenophobia and picking fights with our European neighbours.
The out-of-kilter take of Tory activists and members has consequences because it feeds into a wider malaise about the state of Toryism which informs the many crises of Boris Johnson. No one understands what modern Toryism is and what it stands for. This is a deeper chasm than the existential choices facing Johnson between expanding the state and taxes and emphasising a smaller state and lower taxes. It goes to the heart of what modern Conservatism represents in the 21st century after Thatcherism, after the economic and social revolutions of recent decades, and in an age of constant change and disruption.
Is Toryism about innovation and change, or is it more about emphasising stability, security and preservation? And how does Toryism respond to the headwinds of the populist right which can be seen around the world, which amplified Brexit and which Johnson has tried to appropriate for himself? Such big political questions are faced in most advanced capitalist democracies by the parties of the moderate centre-right, but in the UK they are particularly acute because of the historic electoral dominance of the Conservative Party.
Boris Johnson’s days are numbered as Prime Minister. His authority and power as PM and Tory leader are shot through and destroyed by his own hand. Yet in these end days of his disastrous, chaotic, corrupt Premiership, there remains only an issue of timing and nature of his downfall, rather than any chance of his long-term survival.
A post-Johnson Tory Party will face some unpleasant, difficult choices. This is now a party of few active members – funded by kleptocratic capitalism, dodgy, dirty money, and even foreign oligarchs who have bought British citizenship. How long can this unedifying spectacle continue to electorally and politically dominate UK politics protected by the hysterical voices of the right-wing print media?
Even more fundamentally Toryism has little creative or positive to say about the multiple crises facing the UK and its people – economic, social, democratic, geo-political. This is because it was one of the leading advocates for the economic order created in the past couple of decades and the insider classes and vested interests who gained from it. And at the same time the Tory Party’s aged membership and voters want to keep their own benefits and privileges to the cost of other parts of the electorate, particularly younger voters – seen for example in housing policy and planning law in England.
Toryism in short has become an unapologetic defender of the existing status quo and the current economic and social malaise which disfigures the UK. Boris Johnson thought that with his ebullient character he could transcend the limitations of Toryism and Thatcherism, but he has been unable to, restrained by the Tory Party internal coalition and his on limitations as a person and leader.
The future of British politics post-Johnson will be defined by difficult choices and big questions about the future of government, society and the four nations which make up the UK. The current Tory Party and make-up of Toryism has proven incapable in addressing these issues or to seem even competent, but that will not stop the siren, ideological voices on the ultra-right of the party thinking they are the answer.
All of this could be a historic opportunity for Labour to pose a very different idea of Britain and the future. But how often has this been said and ultimately turned out to be transitory? Traditional Toryism is now exhausted and discredited as is uber-Thatcherism, so what will remain of this party after Johnson and can Labour make them seriously pay for their arrogance, indulgencies and repeated failures?