Boris Johnson’s downfall is the culmination of months of pressure on his leadership, punctuated by repeated scandals over his lying to the public and Parliament. Reports of sexual groping by deputy chief whip Chris Pincher — and Johnson’s knowledge of his past misconduct, before he appointed him — are just the latest in a stream of stories about the prime minister’s reckless disregard for rules. Such revelations, fueled by the texts and emails of months past, are surprising to no one, least of all to the dozens of previously loyalist Tory ministers who now damn him as unfit for office.
Johnson’s resignation announcement skirted around immediately stepping down as prime minister, but we are now set for an internal Tory contest to replace him. Given the large Conservative majority in the House of Commons — including the dozens of new MPs elected under Johnson’s leadership in the 2019 general election — there is little sign that this will produce much change of political course. Many of the resignations in recent days came from longtime allies of the prime minister, who seek only to position themselves for that contest.
Much media talk around Johnson’s refusal to step down in recent days took up the language of constitutional crisis — and worst of all, the risk that his efforts to stay on risked “embarrassing the Queen.” Broadcaster Andrew Neil, recently scarred by his role in setting up the far-right TV channel GB News, took to Twitter to assert that the comparisons between Johnson and Donald Trump had finally been substantiated. Yet today such claims seem wildly overblown, aimed only at asserting that the doomed Johnson somehow stands outside of the Tory mainstream — a rogue individual, who can now be safely dispensed with.
Labour leader Keir Starmer has called for an election, saying he wants a “fundamental” change of government and not just a new Tory leader. Yet Starmer and his party have studiedly refused to “politicize” their challenge to Johnson. A parade of Labour shadow ministers has taken to the TV screens to insist that Johnson is individually dishonest, arrogant, and beneath his office, and the Tories’ internal drama a “distraction” from the business of government. Yet the Starmerites remain determined to avoid all comment on the ideological agenda that Johnson and his ministers have spent twelve years pursuing, the better to cast themselves — in the finest uber-centrist style — only as the aspirant competent managers of a depoliticized government machine.
While it surely is important that elected officials obey the same rules they impose on others, this represents a pitifully weak challenge to the Tories’ record. The Conservatives’ twelve years in office — five in partnership with the Liberal Democrats — have brought protracted austerity that has permanently undermined Britain’s public services; a COVID-19 response that placed the freedom of business owners above the freedom of tens of thousands of people to breathe; and a reactionary nationalism that promises to send failed asylum seekers on one-way flights to Rwanda, no matter where they originally came from.
Labour’s dulled response nonetheless seems consistent with Starmer’s strategy over his two-year leadership of cleaving as close to the government as possible, insisting that his is a “responsible” opposition, not an “ideological” one like previous leader Jeremy Corbyn’s. Even when the Rwanda policy was announced, Starmer criticized it on grounds of financial cost rather than its sheer inhumanity; even the support for the European Union that once galvanized his supporters is now marginalized. Yet even when political opposition is reduced to a matter of individual probity — with much talk about the hallowed standards of British public life that are now being stained — this also allows such well-known liars as Tony Blair and his former aide Alastair Campbell to launder their reputations.
With Labour failing to put up a political opposition, others have instead had to partly fill its role. In June, rail strikes led by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) union drew broad sympathy from Britons hit by the cost-of-living crisis, even as mainstream media and the Labour leadership united in the assumption that the wider public saw trade unions only as a nuisance. In last night’s television coverage of the Westminster drama, it was left up to Martin Lewis — founder of consumer website Money Saving Expert — to point out that soaring fuel costs will leave millions of Britons unable to pay their energy bills this winter, perhaps even prompting “social unrest” that will dwarf Tory wrangling over Johnson.
While there are surely more or less state-interventionist elements in the Tory party, its looming leadership contest seems likely to be fought on the most market-fundamentalist territory. The replacement of the billionaire chancellor Rishi Sunak by oil magnate Nadhim Zahawi in the final days of Johnson’s premiership — immediately promising to review a planned rise in corporation taxes — seems indicative of the mood. Insofar as policy criticisms of Johnson have emerged from Tory ranks in recent days, they have largely revolved around calls for tax cuts and abandoning an even notional green agenda; we can also expect the leadership contest to include intense fearmongering about Scottish nationalism and the rise of Sinn Féin in Ireland.
Johnson’s downfall is partly a product of the threat to its sitting MPs, fearing for their seats after recent by-election losses. He leaves his party in doubt both in former Labour seats — the much-mythologized “Red Wall” in ex-industrial England, conquered by the Tories in 2019 — and in wealthier parts of the South, where the Liberal Democrats are the main challengers. Yet with such weak opposition as we have seen in the last two years, it seems highly likely that a new Tory leader will be able to set the political weather in coming months, garlanded by the media honeymoon that Johnson and his predecessor Theresa May each enjoyed when they first took over. Even in the dying days of Johnson’s leadership, more than halfway through this Parliament, Labour is only a few points ahead in national polling, far from the sizable and sustained lead it would need to win a majority.
Starmer’s party seems convinced that power will fall into its lap as the Tories disintegrate. Its expulsion of thousands of socialists from its ranks and abandonment of even lip service to the leftish policies on which Starmer was elected leader in 2020 are each designed to demonstrate a radical break with the Corbyn era, turning it into a kind of respectable Tory-lite party and “safe” option for British capitalism. Yet for all the clashes over personality, the fundamental processes in British politics remain unchanged: a mass of older and wealthier homeowners whose high turnout guarantees a solid base for the Tories, and the more febrile disaffection among working-age Britons who see their material interests all but ignored in the media circus. So long as Labour fails to stand up for these latter and draw real dividing lines, it has no chance of breaking the Tory stranglehold on the British political agenda.