The Economist magazine celebrated with a front cover proclaiming “ClownFall”. Yes it has happened. Britain’s impressively dishonest and disorganised right-wing Prime Minister Boris Johnson is leaving office, and just about everybody is pleased to see the back of him.
Yet Johnson hasn’t actually left yet, instead he is continuing in office until October. Paranoid rumours that he is planning to stay beyond that cannot be entirely dismissed and when he does finally exit, the British political outlook will likely remain cruel and toxic. There are fears that the governing Conservative Party, whose shrinking and xenophobic members are to elect a new leader, will pick a new PM even further to the right.
Johnson finally seems to have lied once too often. After a scandal hit premiership, the Chris Pincher debacle finally brought him down. Pincher resigned as Conservative Party deputy chief whip after admitting to drinking heavily and groping two men in the Carlton Club, the elite club for top Tories. Pincher was revealed to have had a long record of drunken sex pest incidents. Johnson denied that he knew any of this when he appointed Pincher to the post. A civil servant wrote to the press revealing that this was a lie.
Having defended Johnson over a wide catalogue of dishonesties in recent months, his ministers decided that this was finally too much. Within two days 50 MPs had resigned government posts, starting with the Chancellor of the Exchequer (Britain’s finance minister) Rishi Sunak. Johnson hung on with everything he had but eventually agreed to stand down.
'One party state?'
Britain might be seen as a one-party state, five of the most recent seven prime ministers, since 1979, have been Conservatives. An ageing and increasingly conservative electorate, a huge pile of cash from hedge funds and billionaires and the loyalty of most of the print media, mean in Britain we can freely choose any government we like as long as it is blue — the colour of the Conservative Party. The Labour Party have been out of office since 2010, and despite some impressive recent poll leads, their ineffective and dull leader Sir Keir Starmer looks uncertain to reverse the trend.
While changes of governing party are rare, changes of PM are more common. Conservative Party leaders, rather than stepping down or losing an election, are usually destroyed by their own party. The Conservatives are infatuated with new leaders but quickly become disillusioned and work to boot them out. Margaret Thatcher was ousted in the 1990s, David Cameron resigned after the Brexit referendum saw Britain vote to leave the European Union, his successor Theresa May was removed by Tory MPs and now they have forced Johnson out.
Johnson committed a kaleidoscope of misdemeanours, he had numerous affairs, tried to promote lovers to paid office, committed sexual acts in the foreign office premises and, above all, lied and lied and lied. One gets the impression that pointless risk taking and dishonesty is at the core of his character. Most damming was that during COVID-19 lockdown, when people could be fined for visiting the park and many individuals missed seeing dying family members, Johnson partied. Numerous parties in Downing Street eventually led to investigations, fines and even more lies. Last month a vote of no confidence amongst Conservative MPs saw him come close to being ousted.
As I write, up to 11 candidates look likely to contest the Conservative Party leadership. Conservative MPs are balloted successive times until just two candidates are left, the Conservative Party members then vote over the summer with the result in September. Candidates are mainly working to appeal to a right-wing membership, arch climate change sceptic Steve Baker MP has pulled out of the race but an orgy of tax cuts for corporations, restrictions on immigration and transphobia mark the pitches of the remaining candidates.
Britain’s fundamental problems are deepening. The COVID-19 pandemic has left deep scars and the National Health Service is in ongoing crisis. Housing is increasingly unaffordable. Britain’s economy is increasingly battered with rising government debt, falling incomes and rapidly rising poverty. Inequality is also rising, and with inflation fuelled by huge rises in energy bills, the worst is yet to come. Brexit looks increasingly unsustainable too. Climate change even in traditionally mild Britain is having a damaging impact. However, these challenges are essentially off the agenda for the Tory leadership candidates.
Starmer has targeted Johnson, kept largely silent on policy matters and enthusiastically purged the left within Labour. It is difficult to see him providing serious solutions for the various challenges the country faces.
Signs of hope
There are some signs of hope and resistance to continuing right-wing Tory misrule. Wales, Scotland and the North of Ireland are increasingly going their own way and rejecting both Tories and Labour. Union militancy is also rising. Sharon Graham of Unite has increasingly been winning disputes and her members have been seeing pay increases.
Mick Lynch, a leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers' union, has been leading an effective strike by railway workers and has proved popular in television appearances. At the annual Durham Miners Gala this week, he said "I don't give a monkey's who the leader of the Tory party is", proclaiming: "We're back. The working class is back. We refuse to be meek, we refuse to be humble and we refuse to be poor anymore."
Poverty and inflation — issues largely ignored by the Conservative leadership contenders — could drive major resistance, including campaigns of non-payment over the coming winter.
Perhaps only a liar like Johnson could paper over the contradictions in the Conservative Party. His lies made his premiership unsustainable, but without him the Tories may be destroyed by a growing economic and political crisis. Defeating them will be a matter of on-the-streets militancy — as when Thatcher was defeated over the poll tax back in the 1990s — rather than parliamentary or electoral manoeuvrings.
[Derek Wall is a former International Coordinator for the Green Party of England and Wales.]