While the rest of Britain was subject to the strictest of lockdown restrictions, the Prime Minister and those close to him were partying behind closed doors or in the garden at 10 Downing Street. Johnson has apologised for or excused the hypocrisy over the parties – including an unprecedented apology to the Queen for parties held the night before her husband’s funeral – but the media frenzy has continued. Several Tory MPs and many leading Scottish Conservatives have called for Johnson’s resignation on the grounds that he is not “fit for office”. Internationally, the evidence of corruption and dishonesty within the political apparatus is a further humiliation for the British bourgeoisie. While deception and scandals are normal in bourgeois politics, in the most developed countries, only in the US, where divisions are notably violent, is there a greater loss of control of the political game.
Initially it was not clear what would be the result of the appointment of Sue Grey from the Cabinet Office to look into the circumstances of the parties. Would there be a cover-up or would her report conclude that rules had been broken and the ministerial code had been flouted, and heads would have to roll? Publication of the expected report was delayed because the Metropolitan Police had been called in to see if any offences had been committed. The undertaking of a criminal investigation is a clear escalation in the seriousness of the situation. Part of the bourgeois state is obviously concerned about something that is more than just a conflict between political factions. The fact that the police then asked for the Sue Grey report not to include references to anything that they were investigating only adds to the mess. At the time of writing the Grey report had still not appeared and is the subject of much speculation on what it will mean for Johnson.
Despite the evidence of problems faced by the bourgeoisie, the ruling class has still been able to use the scandal against the working class. In continuity with the perpetual campaign over the benefits of capitalist democracy, the contrast is made between the so-called ‘great traditions’ of parliamentary functioning and the lies and manoeuvres of a corrupt regime. Being drawn into this false choice between bourgeois political models is an obstacle to workers understanding that the existing state, whatever its form, can only serve the interests of capitalist exploitation.
The predictable consequences of Johnson’s election
After the 2019 general election, in WR 385, we showed that Johnson might have delivered Brexit, but the way was open for further and greater problems ahead. “The British bourgeoisie has been reduced to relying upon a political chancer who shamelessly mobilised populist sentiments in order to further his rise to power. There was no other politician who had the necessary lack of scruples to wage the bitter factional struggle within the Conservative Party and then during the election campaign. […] The strains and tensions within the political apparatus show that the problems for the bourgeoisie in controlling the situation have not diminished. The current British Prime Minister is an unpredictable chancer whose line of march can’t be easily gauged … Britain has plenty of political problems ahead.”
Johnson managed to hold the Tory party together for a certain period, but at the cost of generating new tensions and divisions further down the line. What would happen on his departure is a leap into the unknown. In the battle between the different factions there have been threats to MPs who gained seats in previously Labour areas in 2019. They have been forcefully reminded they owe their place in Parliament to Johnson’s victory. If he goes, they are told, then they are also on the way out. Lacking any principles, they cling on to Johnson regardless of any considerations of policy.
In the eyes of political commentators, accustomed to putting everything in personalised terms, the continuing storms in parliamentary politics are all down to the personality of the Prime Minister. He was sacked by The Times for making up a quote, he was sacked by Tory leader Michael Howard for lying about an extramarital affair: lying is his standard response to any difficult situation. In reality, the difficulties that the bourgeoisie has in controlling its political apparatus are not due to particular personalities but are problems that typify the phase of capitalism’s social decomposition. The British bourgeoisie, one of the most experienced in the world, used to have a reputation for stability in its political life and its ability to cope with potential political upsets. In recent years, from the referendum over EU membership in 2016, through the troubled premiership of Theresa May, to the elevation of Johnson and the farce of negotiations with the EU, there has been a wealth of evidence of the bourgeoisie’s increasing loss of control of its political life.
When under attack over ‘partygate’ it was not surprising that Johnson introduced a number of populist policies in an attempt to appeal to potentially wavering Tory MPs. The police, crime, sentencing and courts bill was already underway, giving the police a significant extension to their powers to stop or constrain protest. In addition to this was an announcement that armed forces would take charge of deterring migrant boat crossings in the English Channel. Then there was the announcement that the BBC licence fee would be frozen for two years, and probably abolished in 2027 – sparking a false debate round the BBC as a service ‘admired around the world’. The Levelling Up department continues to receive publicity, but it will have no new funds to implement any new proposals.
The most important announcement to please the populist wing of the Tory party concerned the end of most Covid restrictions introduced to combat the Omicron variant. Mask-wearing on public transport, in shops and schools, will no longer be compulsory, working from home is no longer advised, vaccine certificates will be dropped, and self-isolation for people with coronavirus will stop in March (or possibly earlier). All this comes at a time when the infection rate is still high and deaths are currently rising. Overall, since the beginning of the pandemic, Britain has had the greatest number of infections in Europe, and (with the exception of Russia) the greatest number of deaths. The possibility of a future Covid wave counts for nothing when there’s a need to firm up support for Johnson within the Tory Party.
The possible break-up of the UK
The splits within the main political parties (which includes the divisions in the Labour Party) are not the only expressions of the bourgeoisie losing control. The UK might be out of the EU, but the impasse over Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements still remains unresolved. The EU is trying to achieve a solution by the end of February because that’s when campaigning will start before elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. Meanwhile Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has indicated that the UK is ready to take unilateral action that would suspend the customs checks on goods moving to the six counties. On top of this, the latest opinion polls show that Sinn Féin are on course to become the largest party in Northern Ireland, which means they would have the post of First Minister; but neither of the two main Unionist parties has confirmed whether they would be prepared to be in a coalition with SF. Without a coalition there can’t be an Executive. Whether struggling with the EU or trying to deal with the parties in Northern Ireland, the British government is facing forces threatening the unity of the state. When you add in the continuing pressures coming from Scotland, which now look like including the Scottish Conservatives, you can see that the forces of fragmentation are intensifying.
One element that was put forward by Boris Johnson as part of a ‘solution’ to the possible break-up of the United Kingdom was a bridge or tunnel between Scotland and Northern Ireland, which Johnson thought could be done for “about £15bn”. The results of a feasibility study (itself costing nearly £900,000) estimated that a bridge would cost £335bn and a tunnel around £209bn, taking nearly 30 years from planning to completion. The report concluded that it would be “impossible to justify” as “the benefits could not possibly outweigh the costs”.
While the cracks in the political apparatus of the ruling class get wider, the material situation facing workers continues to deteriorate. Inflation is growing and reaching levels not seen in 30 years, and this is on top of more than a decade of austerity since 2008.
The working class needs to be aware that no faction of the bourgeoisie, whether populist or not, will defend anything except the interests of the ruling capitalist class. Whether Johnson is removed from office or not, the divisions within the Tory Party, and throughout the bourgeoisie will continue. Its mounting political disorganisation will remain a factor in the situation, but workers will gain nothing by being persuaded to take sides in the battle between factions of the bourgeoisie. While living standards decline Britain has the highest defence expenditure in Europe and, in the confrontation between Ukraine and Russia, the Tories have placed themselves firmly on the side of the US and NATO and are supported in that by the Labour Party. This is a class that can only offer the degradation of living conditions and the risk of imperialist war