Lindsey German gives an overview of the Tory PM’s terminal days
This is the end for Boris Johnson, even if he doesn’t know it yet. While this prime ministerial crisis is ostensibly about parties and the lies told to justify them, it reflects an utterly cavalier attitude to the deaths of more than 170,000 British people from Covid-19. The disgust felt by some many who suffered during periods of lockdown and restrictions is palpable. Johnson will be remembered for the wine cooler delivered to No 10, the suitcases filled with alcohol from the Strand Co-op, the repeated attempts to dress up garden parties and Xmas booze ups as work events, at times when the rest of us were staying in isolation and unable to visit those closest to us let alone have a party.
The unravelling of Boris Johnson’s prime ministership symbolises a much wider crisis at the heart of British society. A majority Tory government is yet again to lose its prime minister – my guess is sooner rather than later – making him the third to depart in five years, despite their electoral success.
Johnson is trying to brazen it out with his carefully-worded answers in parliament which owe more to his lawyers than to his own abilities, and with his attempts to throw as many of his advisers as necessary overboard in order to save his own skin. The alleged title of this is ‘Operation Save Big Dog’ showing exactly his arrogant and condescending attitude even to those close to him. The problem for Johnson however is that the bluff and bluster simply isn’t cutting it anymore. So while even now, after his fake apology, he privately says he’s blameless, few believe him. The truth is that he created a culture where it was ok to party with impunity as people died – and while people in working class areas were arrested and fined for doing just that.
It is clear that support for him, even among erstwhile Tory loyalists, is collapsing. Tory MPs report school students joking and laughing about him. Memes with the Wetherspoons logo over 10 Downing St, or supermarket wine displays marked ‘office supplies’, abound. At best he is facing ridicule, but beyond that he has lost what political or moral authority he had. Tory MPs always knew Johnson was a liar and a chancer but now everyone knows. Crucially this means it is impossible to imagine him being able to, for example, enforce more stringent anti-Covid regulations or indeed to implement unpopular government policies more generally.
One of the revealing aspects of this whole affair is that it shows how intertwined politicians, the civil service, police and media are in the world of Whitehall and Westminster. The inquiry by top civil servant Sue Gray is effectively asking an employee to assess the wrongdoings of her boss. The refusal of the Metropolitan Police to even begin to investigate these breaches of the lockdown is in great contrast to the arrest for lockdown breaches for those protesting at the murder of Sarah Everard by a policeman. Downing Street is very heavily policed and is full of CCTV cameras – there is no way any of these events could have taken place without the police knowing. The leaving do for comms adviser James Slack was to mark his departure to become deputy editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Sun showing the revolving door between politicians, government and the media.
It’s a case study in hypocrisy to see the changes of attitude towards Johnson now that his mendacity is affecting the opinion polls. Those in government, parliament and the media put up with him as long as he was winning elections. The popular line was that nothing stuck to him, he was seen as a larger than life character, his bad behaviour was already ‘priced in’ to support for him. Now he’s not a winner and his own MPs are turning on him.
Boris rested his support in parliament on the party’s right wing. The pro-Brexit ERG was his base and pro-Remain Tories were sidelined or driven out. Since Covid, this grouping has also been at the forefront of opposing lockdown, demanding that everything got ‘back to normal’ regardless of the cost in lives and illness. In effect it has a veto over Tory policies in parliament as the recent rebellion showed. But this shows the political contradictions. The ERG is not representative of the mass of population, neither is it representative of majority ruling class opinion, especially over Brexit.
It’s worth remembering here what the 2019 election about and why Johnson won so decisively. Firstly it was about demonising Corbyn and thus preventing a left Labour government. This took two major forms – the disastrous Second Referendum campaign backed by so many of Corbyn’s own supporters, and the antisemitism issue which was weaponised against him. The Guardian liberals who now wring their hands about Johnson’s government were at the forefront of this demonisation. The process allowed the Tories a major advantage in the so called ‘red wall’ seats. The demolition of the red wall was achieved by the central slogan ‘get Brexit done’ which led to support in these Leave areas. However we should remember this was the end of a 20-year process of decline in former industrial areas for Labour – and it was a process brought about by Blairism and right-wing Labour councils.
The problem for the Tories is that class will win out. And in the red wall seats I guess the anger is much more intense than in traditional Tory seats (although it is obviously very high there as we saw in North Shropshire last month) because people will feel duped. Far from ‘levelling up’ in those areas, as he has repeatedly boasted, Johnson heads a pampered elite who really don’t give a toss about working class people’s lives.
This is a major moment for the Tories, one that to me is reminiscent of the 1992 double crisis over the ERM and pit closures which hit the Major government soon after its election. That government hung on but was replaced by the biggest Labour landslide ever. This time it will be different. The government doesn’t have five years. Indeed it has its own major crisis looming, where most working-class people will see dramatic falls in their incomes over the next months. The impact of the cost of living crisis will have a major effect on politics.
But this is also an ideological crisis as many who put faith in this government and in Brexit changing their lives for the better see the reality. This allied with the royal crisis over Prince Andrew means some of the most important institutions which cement society are now being revealed as flawed to millions of people.
There is an argument on the left that none of this really matters, that it’s just a Westminster sideshow and that he’ll just be replaced by another Tory. This is a misunderstanding of the seriousness of the crisis itself, and of the coincidence of it with major attacks on working class people. Johnson going would be a blow for all those who support his policies and his corrupt government. It would also weaken the whole argument that politics is defined by the referendum and therefore is more about culture wars than class. Most importantly it would give working class people more confidence to fight the attacks on them – whether over prices and wages, privatisation of the NHS or increased repression.
That is the crucial question to address here. We know that Johnson going won’t end capitalism. We know that even if Labour replaces the Tories, Starmer and his Blairite cronies will help to prop up the system rather than challenge it. We know the unelected institutions which help rule us will do everything they can to hold onto power.
We also know that our power lies in our ability to organise and to fight against the system. The growth in unions, the number of strikes, the outrage over politicians from Blair to Johnson, and the thousands of campaigns and activities, are only small signs that working-class organisation is beginning to revive. But they will be strengthened by this crisis to fight back in the months to come.
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