Boris Johnson and His Political Legacy Are Both in Peril
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- “Partygate,” the very British scandal over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s participation in soirees — where drink was taken and dance moves displayed — during pandemic lockdowns, continues to rattle the government and divide the ruling Conservative Party. There was high drama in Parliament on Wednesday: In an especially gladiatorial session of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), Johnson rebuffed calls for his resignation from friend and foe alike.
Ghosh: I’m going to start by asking Therese to summarize the drama in Parliament today.
Raphael: It seems extraordinary to me that we can’t really say whether Boris Johnson will be here in a week or not!
Today’s PMQs were interesting. From his body language and tone, it was a more boosterish Johnson, displaying the qualities that the party elected him for. He took every opportunity to return to his government’s rollout of the Covid-19 vaccines last year. For every question that Labour leader Keir Starmer asked him, his answer was, “Yes, but vaccines.”
And that seemed to go pretty well for Johnson. You thought his party might be willing to let this slide a bit, at least until local elections in May.
But then David Davis, a Conservative grandee and staunch Brexiteer, stood up and said, “In the name of God, go!” That was quite a moment. So I’ll return to what I said at the start: Who knows what’s going to happen?
Ghosh: Adrian, in a situation like this, what has to happen for a prime minister to fall?
Wooldridge: Well, we’ve had recent experience of this with Theresa May, who was decapitated by her party. What has to happen is 15% of the parliamentary party has to write letters to Graham Brady, chairman of the party’s so-called 1922 Committee — and that precipitates a vote.
Then half of the party has to vote to get rid of the prime minister. That is quite a high barrier to cross. There is a very significant “payroll vote” of Tories who are employed by the government and who are bound, at least on the first vote, to vote in favor of the prime minister.
If the majority doesn’t vote against him in the first round, then the prime minister is safe from a challenge for another year.
So he’s not destroyed yet. But I’ve been quite astonished over the last few days — by how much resentment of him there is, how much dislike for his ruling style, and how many people want change. Not only did David Davis call for him to go in no uncertain terms, but we had a Conservative member of Parliament, Christian Wakeford, abandoning the party and crossing the floor to join Labour. He is an MP for a “red wall” seat. This may be the beginning of the collapse of the red wall. And Johnson’s claim to power is that he delivered these formerly Labour voting seats.
Ghosh: Could you explain what the red wall is?
Wooldridge: It is a set of traditionally Labour seats that shifted in huge numbers to the Conservative Party the last time around. One of the reasons that they shifted was that they liked Boris Johnson. A lot of his power depends on the idea that he can appeal to voters that no other Tory can.
Ghosh: That brings us to a point that you make in your recent column. Whereas many people, certainly outside of Britain, see Johnson as almost a comic figure who seems to constantly bumble and stumble — and somehow survive — you say there’s much more to him, that he transformed the Conservative Party, winning votes from both southern elites and the northern working class.
Wooldridge: Absolutely. For the Tories, Boris plus Brexit brought in a whole bunch of people who had voted Labour all their lives. It’s not clear that anybody else could have done that, or that any possible successor could hold that coalition together.
But it’s a very strange coalition. The Conservative Party has been claiming it can radically improve the lives of these left-behind people, that it can do things for them that the Labour Party hasn’t done. But we are now entering a period of austerity, with inflation and falling living standards, which means that these people are seeing that their lives are getting worse.
So for the Tories, the crisis isn’t only about Boris Johnson and his party shenanigans. It’s also a contradiction between two different constituencies and the failure of a promise to improve living standards for working-class voters
Ghosh: As you pointed out, Johnson’s answer to most of his critics in Parliament today was, “But vaccination.” Is that strong enough an argument to turn the tide of public opinion?
Raphael: Public opinion right now is very sour on Boris Johnson. A new poll shows Labour has an 11-point lead in the red wall. If you had a uniform swing, that would mean the Conservatives would lose all but three of their red wall seats. That’s just devastating.
The Tories won over red wall voters because of Johnson’s persona, because — despite his elite background and his education — he was seen as one of them. I’m not sure he can ever get that back after the Partygate scandals.
Remember, this is a very transactional party. Johnson was elected leader because he could win for the party. If he can no longer do that, then it’s a real question whether the Tories will stick with him.
The polls are important. So too are the letters MPs get from their constituents. MPs go back to their constituencies on the weekend and report back on Mondays. We’ll see if they say, “I received 300 letters that all said, ‘Sack him,’ and 20 that said, ‘Wait for Sue Gray’s [investigation into Partygate].’”
A lot of people waiting for Gray’s report, but I’m not sure it’s going to be definitive.
But there probably are some Tories who will think this isn’t quite the time for a no-confidence vote, because it would be a blessing in disguise for Johnson if he won it. As Adrian says, he then buys himself a grace period of a year, and maybe by then the country’s in a different place.
Ghosh: For the benefit of folks outside the U.K., let’s delve a little bit into some of the dramatis personae in this saga. The key figure has been Dominic Cummings, who was Johnson’s close friend and his chief adviser as prime minister. His revelations have been incredibly damaging. Therese, would you tell us who this guy is and what his motivations are?
Raphael: Goodness, where to start? Before anything else, Cummings was the No. 2 in the Vote Leave campaign to take the U.K. out of the European Union. He was the brains behind it, the guy who invented the “Take Back Control” slogan. In the movie “Brexit: The Uncivil War,” he’s played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
But the key fact here is that he was fired by Johnson. He was very, very divisive in government. He’s a great believer in shaking things up and wanted to remake government. He was very frustrated that Johnson wasn’t able to use Brexit to catalyze these reforms.
This scandal is being seen as Cummings’ revenge. He was reported to be at one of these parties, but then wrote in a blog, “Don’t look at this, look at what happened on May 20.” That kicked this whole thing off. He has now said that he would swear under oath that Johnson was told that there would be a party and that this was a horrible idea.
But it won’t please a lot of Tory MPs to be seen as deposing their leader because of a Cummings coup.
Wooldridge: Cummings despised Tory MPs and thought they were basically stupid — and they didn’t like being thought to be stupid. He memorably described David Davis as “thick as mince, lazy as a toad and vain as Narcissus.”
And I think he has a lot more dirt, because he was right at the center of government for a very long time.
But it’s very important to remember that there are deeper structural forces at play. This is a party trying to do two incompatible things: appealing to the low-tax Southern rich and poor Northerners who want higher taxes. It’s also a party that has lost the habit of loyalty. It was disloyal to Theresa May and has now become disloyal to Boris Johnson — whether because of ideology or because MPs have got into the habit of disobeying their leadership.
And this is partly because the new tranche of Tory MPs from the north has never been acculturated into the party. They were elected without expecting to be elected. They arrived in Parliament at a time when, because of Covid, everything was closed down. So they’re not really part of the Tory tribe; they’re almost freelance MPs. Their loyalty was very weak, and is even weaker now that polls show that they’re going to lose their seats.
So this is a party that is impossible to control.
Ghosh: Another figure not fully understood outside of the U.K. is Keir Starmer, the Labour leader. An opposition leader should be able to jump on a scandal like this and make the most of it. How has Starmer done?
Raphael: Six months ago, I’d have said that he’s a very competent, extremely well-spoken Labour leader, but that people don’t really know what he stands for.
But I think he has turned a corner. In the last couple of PMQs, he’s really landed his blows — not just being lawyerly and asking the forensic question, but kind of having fun with it and being political at the same time.
Of course, politics is a relative business. You don’t have to be the greatest politician ever, you just have to be better than the other guy. Against Boris Johnson right now, Keir Starmer is looking pretty good.
Now, if the Tories were to get rid of Boris Johnson and put, say, Rishi Sunak in his place, I’m not sure that Starmer would look quite as plausible as prime minister. Partly, that’s because he still hasn’t really answered the question: What is the point of Labour?
Wooldridge: In a lot of ways, Starmer’s strategy has been vindicated. He essentially had two strategies. One was to be dull and sensible, competent and respectable. And the more Boris was Boris, especially in the context of a pandemic, the more his qualities wore off and Starmer’s became more attractive.
Secondly, Keir’s notion was that Labour had to focus on winning back the red wall seats, on bringing those voters back to the party. There were a lot of people in the party at the time who said, “You don’t need to focus on those people, they’re lost to us. You need to go for the metropolitan liberal class that has been shifting to Labour for a long time.” Starmer has pursued exactly the right strategy, because these people now look as though they’re abandoning the Tories and coming back.
Ghosh: Can we talk about who might succeed Johnson? It would appear that the two most likely Tory candidates at this point are Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak. Both of them are Thatcherites, which is awkward since the red wall may be the most important factor in the party’s chances of success.
Wooldridge: Truss models herself both personally and intellectually on Mrs. Thatcher. She tries to strike Thatcher-like poses and dress up in Mrs. Thatcher’s clothes. I wouldn’t be surprised to see her walking around with a Thatcher-style handbag in the next few weeks.
She is also basically libertarian: She believes letting the market rip, in entrepreneurial capitalism, in making it easier to create businesses.
Sunak believes the same kind of things — as an ex-Goldman Sachs banker, a graduate of Stanford Business School, and an upwardly mobile son of immigrants. He also believes in balancing the budget.
So she’s the pro-entrepreneurial Thatcherite, he’s more the good housekeeping Thatcherite.
Raphael: I’m trying to remember the last time a frontrunner to replace a leader actually got the job. It doesn’t happen very often. It may just be that neither Sunak nor Truss gets it.
More From Other Writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
Will Sterling Markets See a Silver Lining If Boris Leaves? Marcus Ashworth
Boris Johnson Has Kicked Off a Tory Battle of Succession: Therese Raphael
Boris Johnson’s Fate Depends on Three Factors Now: Martin Ivens
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.
Adrian Wooldridge is the global business columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously a writer at the Economist. His latest book is "The Aristocracy of Talent: How Meritocracy Made the Modern World."
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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