Boris Johnson’s response to the latest disasters swirling around his leadership is to pretend everything’s fine. After two disastrous by-election losses and four in ten of his MPs voting to have him gone, he claims people are uninterested in ‘the things I stuffed up’, that his leadership is settled and that his focus is on a third term, i.e. up to another seven years in office.
Even Johnson’s remaining admirers must know this is delusional. In reality there’s a high chance he won’t survive until Christmas. Influential Tory voices make it clear his survival depends on a radical change of course by the time of the party conference in October. Possibly even more threatening to his near-term survival, the Parliament’s Privileges Committee has started considering whether Johnson lied to the House of Commons with his denials that he broke his own Covid rules banning social gatherings. He already seems to be manoeuvering to reject pressure to resign if, as likely, there’s an adverse finding, with his forces pointing to signs that the committee chair, Labour’s Harriet Harman, has already decided he’s guilty. The process looks set to be messy. Probable leadership rival Liz Truss, for one, says she’ll respect the committee’s findings.
How have the once high hopes for Boris Johnson, which led to his 2019 landslide 80-seat majority, come to this? Clearly the immediate factor is that possibly most Tory voters have reached unflattering conclusions about Johnson’s character and judgment. The fact that he and those around him instituted fiercely policed draconian laws in response to the pandemic but didn’t believe they applied to them – and then tried to cover up the hypocrisy – has generated deep anger, with many previous Tory voters saying they’ll never vote for the party again while he remains leader.
But the deeper reason previous Tory voters and, increasingly, his MPs, are deserting Johnson is that he’s become barely recognisable as a conservative. As I wrote in these pages three years ago when he became prime minister, Johnson was long a hybrid character. He was always soft-left on immigration and his relationship with his current, third wife, eco-activist Carrie Symonds, has coincided with him moving from scepticism to woke orthodoxies on climate change. Yet his pro-Brexit position put him in tune with most Britons. This, his past as the editor of The Spectator and his non-PC irreverence, inclined many to judge he wouldn’t turn out to be another Tory version of Tony Blair. This assessment was encouraged when shortly after he became prime minister he warned prospective cross-Channel asylum-seekers ‘we will send you back’.
It’s hard to think of another government which has so quickly squandered so much electoral goodwill. Even on the one issue where Johnson still gets credit, Brexit, the job was botched, with Northern Ireland effectively left in the EU single market. Despite Ulster Loyalist fury with the arrangement, Johnson lets the matter drift.
Everywhere else Johnson presides over incompetence and wokery. The response to 50,000 cross-Channel illegal immigrants – many of whom have arrived since his empty 2019 warning – remains shambolic. Having first wasted tens of millions of pounds trying to persuade the French to work harder to stop boat departures, the much-heralded Rwanda offshore processing solution has also predictably stalled. As a member of the Council of Europe (separate from the EU), Britain accepts that its Court of Human Rights can overrule British judges, which it did in this case, ruling removal of asylum-seekers to Rwanda illegal. Clearly the government should have first taken whatever legal steps were necessary to stop this from happening.
Johnson’s government has been similarly hopeless on other issues which should have been priorities. It’s done nothing about its election pledge to enact minimum service legislation to prevent strikes crippling key national infrastructure, as the unions have achieved in shutting down the rail system. Johnson’s apologists claim that Covid hasn’t allowed the opportunity. But the pandemic hasn’t prevented the government obsessing about climate issues. Meanwhile Johnson doesn’t seem to care much about taxpayer-funded institutions – the civil service, the NHS, the police, cultural bodies – falling ever more deeply under the influence of the woke Left and their other obsessions, radical race and gender ideology.
Growing numbers of Tory MPs insist Johnson must revert to the Conservatives’ low-tax traditions and ease the cost of living crisis, including by shelving his Green wokery.
Persistent demands include reversing recent tax rises, slashing duty on petrol (£2 a litre), abolishing the 23-per-cent green taxes on soaring energy bills and approving blocked North Sea energy projects. There’s also pressure at least to delay planned expensive to consumers bans on gas boilers and non-electric cars. Johnson has responded with limp gestures – a revival of imperial weights and measurements, approval of one previously blocked North Sea gas project and modestly increasing the defence budget. But he resists any serious rethink of the net zero agenda.
One factor probably delaying Johnson’s execution is the absence of an obvious successor. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who’s handled the Ukraine challenge well, currently seems the favourite among the Tory base, although he’s untested on domestic issues. Former EU negotiator and Cabinet Office minister David Frost, who has emerged as a powerful, trenchant conservative critic of Johnson, would be a more obvious improvement on Johnson, but can’t be a realistic leadership candidate while a member of the House of Lords. Any of the other suggested possibilities – Jeremy Hunt, Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss – would mean the soft-left blob continuing to run the show.
Australia’s election result generated mild interest in Britain, mainly focussed on an exaggerated fear that a republic is now on the horizon. In fact the real Australian lesson for Britain is what happens when conservative parties alienate their base and it goes on electoral strike. Viewed through the British lens, Morrison lost even though the boats remained stopped, he didn’t go to boozy knees-ups during lockdown and didn’t morph into an unhinged Green zealot. Johnson’s chaotic Green-Left operation, combined with his appalling judgment, make the Morrison government look by contrast a model of sensible, conservative government. Unless the Tories change leader and direction soon, they’re on course to suffer a much, much greater humiliation than Australia’s Liberals.