Boris Johnson’s days as Britain’s prime minister appeared numbered as this journal neared publication. Indeed, until the moment on 24 February when Russia invaded Ukraine, Johnson seemed incapable of much more than clinging on while lurching from one crisis to another.1 The war in Ukraine has undoubtedly granted him a reprieve. Tory MPs who had been on the cusp of triggering a vote of no confidence fell silent, while Labour Party leader Keir Starmer rallied behind Johnson, saying: “The prime minister is concentrating on the job in hand, and we stand united as the United Kingdom on that issue”.2 However, Johnson still faced considerable potential embarrassment from the outcome of a Metropolitan Police investigation into serial breaches of Covid-19 lockdown rules at Downing Street parties—collectively referred to as “Partygate”—and the publication of a full report into these breaches by senior civil servant Sue Gray. Should Johnson be found to have broken the law and face a fine and/or to have lied to parliament, Russia’s war on Ukraine might not be enough to save him, especially if the Conservatives were to suffer significant losses in local elections on 5 May. Yet, regardless of the immediate outcome of the leadership crisis, the contradictions at the heart of Johnson’s government will remain.
Johnson was categorised by former Tory leader David Cameron as “a greased piglet”, owing to his ability to wriggle free when he should be on the way to the abattoir. Nevertheless, the crisis that engulfed him in late 2021 and early 2022 suggested he was running out of grease. It could barely have been more deserved. At one level it was absurd that Johnson might be brought down by a series of social events rather than by the vast sums doled out unscrutinised to Tory party cronies for providing Covid-19 testing kits and inadequate personal protective equipment (PPE)—or the ludicrously expensive redecoration of 10 Downing Street for which Johnson solicited payment from a millionaire Tory party donor, then lied about his conduct. All the same, Johnson and those around him repeatedly broke the Covid-19 restrictions he had set for the rest of society during a period when friends and family were barred from visiting the ill and dying and restricted from attending funerals. The resulting anger would have led anyone with a sliver of shame to stand down.
The scale of his fall from grace has been remarkable. Johnson succeeded Theresa May as prime minister in July 2019 at the height of the Brexit crisis, leading a minority government. He was committed to leaving the European Union just months later on 31 October. Most MPs opposed the no-deal Brexit that Johnson insisted he was prepared for. However, by December 2019 Johnson had won an 80-seat majority and delivered on his promise to “Get Brexit Done”. The political commentator Steve Richards noted:
After the December 2019 election, Johnson was the most powerful prime minister of modern times… The closest in terms of unconstrained power was Margaret Thatcher after her landslide victories in 1983 and 1987, but she was surrounded by senior ministers capable of thinking for themselves and daring occasionally to challenge her. For a time, Johnson could do as he wanted.3
It would be a mistake to locate the crisis today as fundamentally due to the widely publicised flaws in Johnson’s character. Alex Callinicos has analysed the forces behind Johnson’s initial twin triumphs, noting his success in bringing together the Thatcherite Eurosceptic wing of the Conservatives with significant numbers of disaffected working-class voters in the North of England and the Midlands. Johnson leads a government drawn from overlapping groupings of Tory MPs in the European Research Group, which sought Brexit, and the neoliberal Free Enterprise Group, which aimed to cut government spending and state intervention in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Yet, Johnson declared the end of austerity and gave an implicit promise of state intervention in his pledge to “level up” the “left behind” regions of Britain. Reflecting on the desires of voters in former Labour seats who in 2019 voted Tory, the Financial Times identified the contradiction:
These voters like large well-funded public services. They want the state to protect them against the cruelties of the free market… Their preferences are light years from the purist economic libertarianism favoured by pro-Brexit right-wing ideologues… The Johnson government will struggle to reconcile its proposed radical divergence from the EU model with the desire for protection of the new Conservative voters.4
This contradiction was at the core of the crisis of Johnson’s leadership. Johnson stuffed his cabinet with pro-Brexit idealogues and free marketeers while not only pledging to “level up” but presiding over unprecedented levels of state spending during the Covid-19 pandemic. He sanctioned tax rises on a scale that would take the overall tax burden back to the level of the 1950s. Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley noted:
Johnson, and to a degree also May, began moving the Conservatives beyond the Thatcherite consensus. Johnson, whose sympathies have long been with Tory interventionists like Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke, won not only with his promise to “Get Brexit Done” but also to end austerity… He promised an active state investing in skills and infrastructure… But Johnson remains ahead of his party, a large part of which clings to a Thatcherite ethos.5
It has been those on the Tory backbenches—viewing themselves as the heirs of Thatcher, despite the core of the cabinet standing in much the same tradition—who rose against Johnson over the un-Thatcherite direction of his government. We will look at the Tory opposition to Johnson shortly. While Starmer focused on securing his place at the head of the Labour Party, seeking to discipline and drive out the Corbynite left, the opposition to Johnson in parliament came largely from the Tory right, which railed at the Covid-19 restrictions and the extent of state invention and government spending. Divisions over Brexit also continued to reverberate, allied to the struggle over Johnson’s priorities—a conflict illustrated by the December 2021 resignation of Brexit minister Lord David Frost, who cited “concerns about the current direction of travel”.6 The “bare bones” withdrawal deal Frost had negotiated to “get Brexit done” left fundamental issues unresolved, not least the position of Northern Ireland and the associated crisis of unionism and the unionist parties in the province.7
Johnson’s immediate future hung on the outcome of a police investigation and the balance of opinion among Tory MPs as to whether they would retain their seats with him in Number 10. He showed every intention of hanging on, seeking to please or buy off those he could with policy announcement plans dubbed “Operation Red Meat”, which saw remaining Covid restrictions scrapped and the military deployed to combat refugees risking death in the English Channel.8 His parlous position was summarised by Vote Leave founder and former MEP Daniel Hannan in The Telegraph:
The reason he was so blown about by squalls is that his MPs had already heaped up a mound of grievances against him: that the government is squandering its 80-seat majority; that taxes, borrowing and inflation are shooting up; that private companies are being nationalised; that Brexit is being squandered. As one MP put it to me, “I backed Boris twice, but if he’s going to govern like a social democrat, what was the bloody point?”9
Johnson’s descent into crisis
Britain departed the EU on 31 January 2020, largely without the chaos prophesied by Brexit’s opponents, in part because any fall out was masked by the developing coronavirus pandemic. The impact of Covid-19, the government’s response and the consequences of its failings have been analysed in depth in this journal.10 So has the “triple crisis” of pandemic, economic slump and ecological collapse that is “fragmenting the global political system”, leading to “an intensification of the conflict between capitals and between states”.11
The government’s failure to implement lockdown early and to provide sufficient stocks of adequate PPE for health and social care workers, as well as myriad other failures, cost the lives of tens of thousands. Paul Taylor, a professor of health informatics at UCL in London, put this performance in perspective, noting Johnson’s repeated claim that “his successful management of the pandemic is more worthy of public attention than trivial issues of garden parties”. Taylor pointed out in the London Review of Books: “Britain was, in many ways, in a good position to respond to the pandemic. It has an incredibly strong science base. It has a unified health system with widespread public support… And yet 175,000 people died”.12
However, the development of vaccines and the government’s bet on their success gave Britain a head start on its EU neighbours in the vaccination rollout, such that the Financial Times could report at the end of January 2021: “After being pilloried for his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, Johnson finds himself in the unusual position of having manoeuvred Britain into…being a global leader in the purchase and distribution of vaccines.” The vaccine programme’s success could even be depicted as a validation of Brexit. Nonetheless, like almost everything else with Johnson, this was the product of a gamble. An aide to Johnson acknowledged: “We rolled the dice and were prepared to…award contracts in the hope that science would find a way”.13
Through much of 2021, Johnson appeared to be in a near impregnable political position despite getting so much wrong. Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley could suggest Johnson was “increasingly confident that his government will emerge from the pandemic far stronger”.14 It was Labour and Starmer that were in crisis, losing the Hartlepool by-election to the Conservatives in May 2021—the first Tory success in that city in 62 years. Around the May 2021 council elections, opinion polls put Labour 18 points behind the Tories.15
Yet, Johnson had also fomented opposition on the Tory right due to his public health restrictions and the scale of government spending to mitigate the impact of the pandemic. The Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (or “furlough”) saw the government pay up to 80 percent of the wages of 11.7 million employees between March 2020 and September 2021 at a cost of £70 billion.16 The government’s total pandemic spending was estimated at up to £410 billion. The government also facilitated loans to companies worth more than £200 billion, with guarantees to lenders that they would be reimbursed in the event of default.17 It is worth noting Labour’s 2019 election manifesto was denounced as “reckless” by the Conservatives when it proposed increasing government spending by £80 billion a year by 2023-4 and raising annual investment by £55 billion.18
There was also growing Tory anger at a succession of policy U-turns and hostility to the way Johnson ran his administration. Through 2020, these frustrations focused on senior aide Dominic Cummings, until his removal in November that year. Cummings subsequently vowed to bring Johnson down with his inside knowledge of the administration. Yet, when the former aide appeared before a joint select committee of MPs in May 2021 and delivered a withering assessment of Johnson, comparing him to “a shopping trolley smashing from one side of the aisle to the other”, his criticism barely registered.19 Johnson’s refusal to bow to a campaign to provide holiday meals for school children before twice performing a U-turn had shown the true face of his Tory government, as did the callous removal of the £20 a week uplift to Universal credit in October 2021.20 Both led to grumbling among Tory MPs at the damage to their support. The criticism grew over the debacle in Afghanistan, with the United States and Britain’s chaotic withdrawal in August 2021. Yet, when MPs voted on a 1.25 percent rise in national insurance contributions on 8 September 2021, the Tory house magazine The Spectator noted that “the Tory rebellion was tiny”. When Johnson shuffled his cabinet in mid-September, he still appeared in control—for example, responding to Tory concerns about planning reforms that threatened Green Belt constituencies by dropping the minister associated with these, Robert Jenrick. Tory frustrations were summarised in late September 2021 by Tory activist Tim Montgomerie, the founder of the Conservative Home website who worked in the Cabinet Office in 2020 before resigning. He noted Johnson “does not feel restrained by the rules Margaret Thatcher laid down”, but is “shamelessly obsessed about retaining power…directed by a government polling operation that is gargantuan, pricey and relentless”. Montgomerie warned of a “dramatic” falling away of support.21
Johnson’s confidence in his position was still strong as he addressed the Conservative Party conference in October, when Spectator journalist Isabel Hardman remarked he had “pointedly turned his back on the past two Conservative prime ministers…rather than building on their legacy”. This insinuated, she continued, “the governments that many of his colleagues and himself had been a part had failed to do their job…while suggesting he had done his”.22 Meanwhile, a colossal rise in energy prices, triggering the failure of a series of energy suppliers, exacerbated a growing squeeze on incomes and sense of crisis induced by supply shortages through the autumn. Johnson strutted the world stage during the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow in early November, but his crass attempt to tear up parliament’s standards regime and prevent the suspension of Tory MP Owen Paterson—paid £100,000 a year to lobby on behalf of a Covid-19 test provider—blew up in his face. Suddenly the focus was on MPs stuffing their pockets. When he performed another U-turn, dumping Paterson and calling for a ban on MPs taking second jobs, Johnson incensed his own MPs. By mid-November, Hardman could ask:
Is there anyone left in the Conservative Party who is happy with Boris Johnson? The Prime Minister has managed to wind up pretty much every single Tory MP… They worry they’ll suffer a big drop in income thanks to the mishandling of the Owen Paterson case.
She noted further: “The past two weeks has opened up a chasm between the ‘red wall’ MPs elected in 2019 and more traditional Tories.” Johnson then gave a rambling speech to the Confederation of British Industry conference of business leaders that drew ridicule and Tory calls for a shake-up of his Downing Street team.23 Hardman reported: “The party may be starting to lose patience”.24 When the Omicron wave of Covid-19 hit in late November, Johnson relied on a booster vaccination programme to combat the variant, rejecting calls for greater working from home and dismissing advice to minimise socialising. Still, many of his own MPs were incensed at even a partial return of restrictions. Hardman reported: “Tory MPs are in uproar.” At the same time, “Partygate” began to gather momentum amid accusations Number 10 breached lockdown rules first at a Christmas Party in 2020, then at a growing number of events. When a video emerged of Downing Street aides joking about a party the prime minister had insisted had not happened, Johnson ordered a Cabinet Office investigation. In Hardman’s words: “Now he has thrown his own staff under a bus, he may find others willing to provide evidence of other parties”.25 Fresh revelations followed almost daily. The civil servant tasked with the investigation was revealed to have hosted a party and had to be replaced. When health secretary Sajid Javid did finally announce new public health restrictions in mid-December, there were calls of “Resign!” from his own MPs. Johnson had to rely on Labour to win a vote on the restrictions as 100 Tory MPs rebelled. Hardman observed Johnson’s MPs “do not take him at his word anymore. They don’t care about damaging his authority”.26 Tory antagonism deepened on December 17 when the party lost the safe seat of North Shropshire to the Liberal Democrats, showing Johnson had become a liability at the polls.
The leaks and allegations of lockdown social events only grew in January 2022. Johnson sought to placate his MPs by rapidly relaxing restrictions brought in to tackle the Omicron variant of Covid, but his motives were transparent.27 Media speculation about the impending Gray report on “Partygate” suggested Johnson had only days in office—until the Metropolitan Police intervened to delay its publication while it investigated a dozen lockdown parties. Gray delivered an “update”, concluding there were “failures of leadership and judgement by… Number 10 and the Cabinet Office”, which left the police investigation and Gray’s full report hanging over Johnson. When Johnson lashed out at Starmer by repeating a right-wing conspiracy theory that the former director of public prosecutions had wilfully failed to prosecute the serial sex abuser Jimmy Saville, triggering the resignation of senior aide Munira Mirza, Hardman reported: “The consensus among MPs is it’s when Boris goes, not if. It’s not just that the rats are leaving the sinking ship. They’re fighting in a sack”.28
Opinion polls reflected the slump in Johnson’s standing, with pollster YouGov recording his approval rating fell from minus 23 in August to minus 48 in mid-December and minus 51 by mid-January 2022.29 The same pollster gave Labour an eight-point lead over the Tories.30 As recently as October 2021, the Tories had held a 10-point lead and, apart from a blip in early September, had comfortably led in the polls since early February. The Financial Times reported the audience at the World Darts Championship in London in December chanting “Stand up if you hate Boris!”31 By January 2022, 63 percent of voters thought Johnson should resign, as did 41 percent of 2019 Conservative voters.32
Boris, Brexit and Tory divisions
At one early high point in the crisis, in December 2021, the Financial Times declared: “Britain is now run by a man whose word is widely not trusted abroad, increasingly not trusted by his people and not even trusted by many of his own MPs”.33 This was undoubtedly true. Yet, the source of the crisis lay less in Johnson’s serial dishonesty than in Tory divisions over the way forward for British capitalism—a divide extending back to the fall of Thatcher and entwined with Britain’s relationship with its biggest trading partner. This is the division that caused the downfall of Cameron in 2016 when he sought to resolve the issue through a referendum on EU membership and lost. Later, it had plunged the May government into terminal crisis when she sought to engineer a Brexit that would have left Britain more or less locked into existing EU arrangements.
Johnson had made a name for himself as a Telegraph journalist in Brussels in the early 1990s through a stream of stories bashing the European Commission. Fellow journalists in Brussels characterised him at this time as “a complete charlatan”, “intellectually dishonest” and telling “such dreadful lies it made one gasp”.34 However, he was not an advocate of leaving the EU until it became a means of levering himself to the head of the Tory party. As an MP in 2003, Johnson told the Commons: “I’m a bit of a fan of the EU”.35 In 2013, he sought to position himself as an alternative to Cameron after the then prime minister promised a referendum, arguing in The Times: “We must threaten to leave the EU if it refuses to give us what we want”.36 Yet, the conservative historian Anne Applebaum reported Johnson arguing at a dinner in 2014: “Nobody serious wants to leave the EU. The City of London doesn’t want it. It won’t happen”.37 Even when Johnson joined the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, he sent Cameron a text suggesting: “Brexit will be crushed like a toad under the harrow”.38 When May presented her so-called Chequers plan for a “soft” Brexit in 2018, Johnson initially balked at resigning as foreign secretary in protest, doing so only after then cabinet colleague David Davis stepped down in order to avoid being outflanked.39
The Tory schism on Europe goes back to the end of Thatcher’s time in office, beginning with a speech she made in Bruges in 1988 against the greater integration of member states of what was then the European Economic Community. Thatcher declared: “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain only to see them reimposed at a European level.” However, she also insisted: “Our destiny is in Europe as part of the Community”.40 Two years later, the resignation of a senior Tory, Geoffrey Howe, from Thatcher’s government, triggered a vote of no confidence that, though Thatcher won, forced her resignation. This was the point at which “Thatcherism and Euroscepticism merged. Her supporters would never forgive her defenestration”.41 Thatcher’s successor, John Major, signed the Maastricht Treaty that founded the EU in 1992, agreeing a process of European integration that would include a single currency. Britain retained an opt-out on part of the treaty, but “Maastricht would prove an inflection point… The moment when the Conservative Party became consumed by ‘Europe’… Europe became ‘enemy number one’”.42 Defending Maastricht, Major spelled out the fault lines in the party that would remain up to 2016: “There are only three ways of dealing with the Community: we can leave it, and no doubt we would survive, but we would be diminished in influence and prosperity; we can stay in it grudgingly, in which case others will lead it; or we can play a leading role in it”.43 The following year, Major hit out at leading Eurosceptic members of his cabinet—future Tory leader Michael Howard, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo—in an unguarded aside, calling them “the bastards” whom he could not sack because “I would have split the Conservative Party into smithereens”.44 However, his government and the Europhile wing of the party had by then been torpedoed by Britain being forced out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism in September 1992.45
Boris Johnson is thoroughly Tory but fundamentally a political opportunist, committed only to his own advancement. A Thatcherite when it seemed the best way to advance in the party on becoming an MP in 2001, Johnson repositioned himself as more of a “one nation Conservative” while London mayor in response to the Cameron government’s austerity. He argued in articles for The Sunday Times and Telegraph, “We’ve got to look after those people who can’t help themselves”, and, “We can’t just shrug at the wealth gap”.46 There is not space to discuss his eight years as London mayor here, but the position gave Johnson a profile to rival Cameron—and that is how he used it. He threw himself behind Vote Leave in 2016 in order to position himself for a run at the Tory leadership despite not expecting the pro-Brexit campaign to win. Following the referendum, he ran to replace Cameron but was denounced by erstwhile ally Michael Gove and stood down, allowing May an unexpected victory.
Johnson has described himself as a “Brexity Hezza”, referring to the former deputy prime minister Michael Heseltine, who advocated more intervention in the economy than was palatable to Thatcher. However, when May was forced out in summer 2019, Johnson climbed into bed with the Brexiteers organised in the European Research Group (ERG)—who claimed to uphold Thatcher’s legacy—in order to win the leadership. The group had been set up in the 1990s but took on new significance after the victory of Vote Leave. Members included Gove, Javid, Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg, all now senior members of Johnson’s cabinet, along with more junior Tories such as work and pensions secretary Thérèse Coffey and ministers Robert Courts and James Cleverly. Other leading members of the ERG such as Steve Baker and Iain Duncan Smith exercised considerable influence from the backbenches.
Many of the group also held membership of the Free Enterprise Group (FEG) of Tory MPs, founded in 2012 by foreign secretary Liz Truss and relaunched in 2015 under Cleverly. The FEG, largely drawn from the 2010 intake of MPs and allied to the Thatcherite Institute of Economic Affairs, sought to combat what it characterised as “the anti-free market atmosphere” in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, advocating reduced state spending, tax cuts, deregulation, greater “flexibility” of labour and abolition of “green taxes”.47 Leading FEG members Patel, Truss, Kwasi Kwarteng and Dominic Raab joined Johnson’s cabinet having authored a report, Britannia Unchained, in 2012 that sought “to address the long-term relative decline of British capitalism”. The document harked back to the 1980s as “a successful decade for Britain” and, in contrast to the Johnson administration’s focus on “levelling up”, called on the Conservative Party to “stop indulging in irrelevant debates about sharing the pie between…the North and the South”. Its authors declared themselves “unembarrassed about the profit motive and the individual drive of the wealth creator”. They also bemoaned “a decline in the work ethic in Britain…reflected in British industrial relations, law, tax, welfare, schooling, parenting and wider social attitudes”. Moreover, they called for a reorientation of Britain’s trade policy, noting “the emergence of a new middle class with commensurate spending power across Asia and Africa…that offers considerable opportunities for Britain”.48 Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi was also an FEG member, as was disgraced former health secretary Matt Hancock, who was forced to resign in June 2021 for breaking lockdown rules.
With these groups represented at the heart of government, other backbench groups became significant in channelling Tory frustration towards Johnson. The Covid Recovery Group, formed in November 2020 and comprising up to 70 Tory MPs with considerable crossover with the ERG—former ERG chair Steve Baker was vice-chair—quickly became influential. The group opposed a second lockdown and demanded the immediate removal of restrictions “if it cannot be proved they are saving more lives than they cost”, placing lives in the balance against business.49 In January 2021, the group warned Johnson his “leadership will be on the table” if he did not deliver a lockdown exit strategy.50 In December 2021, the group led the rebellion by more than 100 Tory MPs against “Plan B” Covid measures to tackle the Omicron variant that only passed with the support of Labour MPs.
Many in this group also overlapped with the 100-strong Clean Global Brexit Group of MPs, including the ubiquitous Baker, to which David Frost addressed a veiled appeal in his resignation letter in December, stating: “I hope we move as fast as possible to…a lightly regulated, low-tax, entrepreneurial economy”.51 These committed Tory Brexiteers desire a bonfire of EU regulations, fantasising this would unshackle business and allow Britain to develop as a kind of “Singapore-on-Thames”, shorthand for a low-tax, deregulated economy that might out-compete the EU in global markets. They believe Johnson risks betraying Brexit. When culture secretary Nadine Dorries, a Clean Global Brexit member, defended Johnson on its WhatsApp group, she was removed.
Another grouping, the Net Zero Scrutiny Group, was set up in the lead-up to the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow in November 2021, saying it aims to scrutinise the government’s climate pledges and seek an end to “green levies”. The Common Sense Group, launched in summer 2021 and claiming about 50 Tory MPs, aimed to combat “subversives” such as Black Lives Matter and climate action group Extinction Rebellion. It also vowed to take on “cultural Marxist dogma” in bodies such as the National Trust and the BBC” and unveiled an “anti-woke manifesto”.52
By contrast, the Northern Research Group of MPs claimed 50 members, largely made up of those newly elected in northern English constituencies in 2019, and called on Johnson “to start delivering an ambitious levelling-up programme for the North at pace”—highlighting the tensions in the party between demands for spending and demands for cuts.53 Yet another, larger group of MPs supported Blue Collar Conservatism, set up by former minister Esther McVey and relaunched in 2019, which sought to target “traditional Labour voters let down by a party that does not understand their aspirations and ambitions for their families”.54 It has claimed the support of 159 MPs. Of course, the single most important group remains the 1922 Committee, which brings together all backbench Tories. Its chair, Graham Brady, held the power to initiate a no-confidence vote in the leader if called for by 15 percent of MPs, which would amount to 54 in the current parliament.
The multiple groups matter less than the fundamentally divergent aims of the dominant neoliberal bloc of MPs and the younger intake represented by the Northern Research Group. This highlights the difficulty Johnson faces in accomplishing the “Hezza” bit of his “platform”—or, as he likes to call it, “levelling up”. The government’s attempt to bridge the divide between appealing to MPs and voters in newly won Tory seats while bowing to demands to cut spending bore fruit of a kind in the Levelling Up White Paper published in February. This drew a derisory response. Touted to realise Johnson’s 2019 election pledge to “shift wealth and power decisively to working people” in “left behind” areas, it offered no new government money. The Institute for Fiscal Studies dismissed the targets as “highly unlikely to be met even with the best policies and much resource”.55 The head of the Labour-leaning Institute for Public Policy Research noted, “The sums fall far short of what has been ripped out of communities in a decade of austerity”.56
Johnson similarly tried to square the ideological circle presented by a planned 1.25 percent increase in national insurance from April. He sought to portray this “health and care levy” as progressive, but at the same time insisted, “We are tax-cutting Conservatives… We are Thatcherites”.57 The Financial Times noted the policy was “relentlessly tested by pollsters up until the last minute”. Johnson told Tory MPs ahead of the Commons vote on the increase that “the gamble would have been not fixing the NHS”, before assuring them, “We are the party of free enterprise, the private sector, of low taxation”.58 For chancellor Sunak the calculation in raising national insurance will have been straightforward. Johnson would take the hit for the increase.59 Yet, Sunak made plain his divergence from the prime minister on tax and spending, withholding Treasury funding commitments from the Levelling Up White Paper. In early March, he delivered a speech outlining what Financial Times chief economics commentator Martin Wolf described as his “warmed over Thatcherism”.60 Sunday Times political commentator Tim Shipman observed, “Their different approaches to public spending are now a fault line through the government”.61
However, the post-Brexit deregulatory designs of the Thatcherites also faced a reality check on at least two counts. First, the EU accounted for 42 percent of British exports and 50 percent of imports in 2020, and Britain could not hope to retain access to EU markets without continuing to align with the bloc’s regulations.62 Second, even if the government chose to deviate on regulations, businesses trading beyond Britain would be forced to align with the regulations in overseas markets. The government might choose to deviate from the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), for example, on the grounds it constrains online commercial activity. However, businesses drawing online visitors from outside Britain would be compelled to comply with the GDPR or risk eye-watering fines.
The government reportedly planned an “investment big bang” through loosening regulations on the City of London as Johnson fought to save his job, with Rees Mogg appointed “Brexit opportunities minister” and charged with identifying 1,000 EU regulations to scrap. This followed the report of a Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform led by Duncan Smith, which suggested the government rip up EU data protection laws and the system of clinical trials for drugs and give pension funds greater freedom to invest in start-up tech companies.63 This was despite the pensions industry warning against loosening the cap on such investments. The taskforce likewise proposed relaxing controls on financial services to boost the derivatives market and smaller “challenger” banks. This ignored the lessons from the 2007-8 financial crisis, the ground for which was laid when banking regulations were stripped back from the 1980s onwards, “driven by the arguments that regulation created barriers to profit” and that deregulation would allow banks to innovate and allocate resources more efficiently”.64
The tensions in the Conservative government’s relations with big business also remained unresolved as a legacy of the Brexit referendum result. The Financial Times noted the “strained relations with big business and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) especially”:
Most of the large companies the CBI tends to represent wished to stay in the EU… The business group has common ground on the government’s skills agenda and desire to “level up” the regions of Britain… However, common ground on “levelling up” and “skills” is easy to find because the concrete policy agenda is so vague.65
The full economic consequences of Brexit also remained to be accounted for. The same newspaper noted in November 2021: “Brexit is already taking an economic toll. The Office for Budget Responsibility said last month that the long-term hit to the British economy due to Brexit would be twice that of the Covid pandemic”.66
What next for the Tories?
Were Johnson to go, the front runners to replace him appear to be Sunak and foreign secretary Truss. Truss backed Remain but flipped to Brexit. She took every photo opportunity to appear like Thatcher, “championing free trade and low taxes…over drinks at private members’ clubs” in a clear appeal to the Tory right.67 Both Truss and Sunak let it be known they were uncomfortable with Covid restrictions, and Sunak’s “Eat Out to Help Out” restaurant scheme in August 2020 illustrated the extent of his lack of concern for the pandemic health measures.
Johnson’s departure would be a moment to savour. Nonetheless, whoever his replacement might be would face the same contradictions, under pressure to veer right instead of addressing the problems faced by the mass of people—the cost of living crisis, the health crisis, the homes crisis, the social care crisis, the climate crisis. Indeed, a casualty of the lurch to the right could be the government’s “net zero” targets—identified by Frost after his resignation as “increasing costs on individuals”—grossly inadequate as these are.68
Even as Johnson sought to cling on, he could not resolve the contradictions within his administration. New head of communications Guto Harri, who worked with Johnson when London mayor, supported Remain and described Johnson’s leadership as “hugely divisive”.69 New director of policy Andrew Griffith is a tax-cutting Brexiteer and former advisory board chair of the Thatcherite Centre for Policy Studies. New chief of staff Steve Barclay, another Brexiteer, was hailed by the Telegraph as “intended to reassure backbenchers” of a “break from the interventionist Covid-19 era”.70 Barclay declared, “We spent £400 billion fighting the pandemic… Now it is a priority to restore a smaller state”.71
Meanwhile, the Bank of England has warned households face the biggest squeeze on disposable incomes for at least 30 years, with the official inflation rate forecast to hit 8 percent.72 Rises in interest rates were set to hike housing and borrowing costs. With energy bills due to rise 54 percent from April 2022, Sunak unveiled a half-hearted attempt to offset some of the increase through a “buy now, pay later” scheme, yet had to acknowledge energy prices would rise again in October. The rise in the cost of living came after a decade of stagnating real wages.73 At the same time, the costs of the pandemic threatened to constrain attempts to address the NHS backlog and perform any kind of “levelling up”. Sunak has promised a tax cut before the next general election, but it was a stretch to see how this could restore even the income lost to the national insurance rise, let alone satisfy anyone much beyond the wealthy and the Tory right.
Despite the war in Ukraine, Johnson has remained sufficiently unpopular for his survival to remain in doubt. However, Sunday Times writer Tim Shipman warned against the idea that poor results in May’s local elections would inevitably finish Johnson off: “The Tories are defending relatively few seats—losses are likely to be in the hundreds, not thousands. If Johnson survives that long, he might be out of the woods”.74 Financial Times columnist Robert Shrimsley also identified a hesitancy among Tory MPs about getting rid of Johnson: “The party is unsure who should replace him and feels no urgency about acting. But above all…they do not yet fear Labour. If the Tories were convinced of Labour’s potency, they would not wait long.” He noted: “Labour’s offer appears to be that it will be a better Boris Johnson… It has accepted part of the Johnson settlement”.75
Therein lies a warning. If Johnson survives to fight a general election in 2023 or 2024, it will be a damning indictment of Labour under Starmer. Yet, the logic of electoral politics means Starmer will see an advantage in Johnson staying on with his reputation in tatters, bolstering the Labour leader’s standing as a prime minister in waiting and opening the doors of business leaders who would welcome a more competent manager of government. Ahead of Labour’s 2021 party conference, Starmer declared, “I’m acutely aware that among my first tasks is rebuilding the relationship between the Labour Party and business”.76 Assessing Starmer’s pre-conference policy document, a Financial Times article noted that it “mentioned ‘business’ 29 times but did not mention the words ‘socialism’, ‘socialist’, ‘nationalise’ and ‘public ownership’”.77 In November 2021, Starmer told the CBI, “When business profits, we all do”.78 When he defended the award of a knighthood to Tony Blair in January despite a petition with half a million signatures protesting against it, Financial Times writer Sebastian Payne remarked: “Starmer’s party is increasingly looking like New Labour Mark 2”.79
By this kind of reckoning, “Get Boris Out” could prove as powerful an election slogan for Starmer as “Get Brexit Done” was for Johnson. Yet, it would do nothing to address the pressures on working-class living standards and the crises in public services. What has been missing is concerted opposition to the government and its policies in workplaces and on the streets, as well as action from trade union leaders and Labour politicians outside parliament. We must hope this changes rapidly and take every opportunity to ensure it does. This is not a vain hope. Johnson’s premiership has seen significant protests and social movements reshape the British political landscape despite the pandemic restrictions. The flare up of protest in response to the rape and murder of a South London woman, Sarah Everard, by a serving police officer in March 2021 took forward the struggle to combat violence against women in unprecedented ways. The Black Lives Matter protests and the toppling of the statue of slaver Edward Coulston in Bristol in June 2020 did the same for the fight against racism.
If Johnson survives, it will be as head of a more brutal, more racist, more anti-working class government. He should not be allowed to cling on. The stakes are too high to bow to the idea that a fatally wounded prime minister can ease the way into Downing Street for a Labour leader determined to reassure the establishment and business that he offers a way out of the crisis.
Ian Taylor is a journalist and a member of the International Socialism editorial board.
1 Thanks to Joseph Choonara for his help with this article and to Camilla Royle and Judy Cox for their comments.
2 Kuenssberg, 2022.
3 Richards, 2020, pp396-397.
4 Callinicos, 2020.
5 Shrimsley, 2022a.
6 Bowden, 2021.
7 Allen, 2021.
8 Shipman, 2022.
9 Hannan, 2022.
10 See especially the articles in International Socialism 167 (summer, 2020).
11 Choonara, 2020.
12 Taylor, 2022. Drawing on the account of Jeremy Farrar, an infectious disease specialist and director of the Wellcome Trust who advised the government at the start of the pandemic, Taylor argues: “There is a long list of things that went wrong early on. The government didn’t at first seem to take the threat seriously. Even after this changed…there followed chaos and scandal around the implementation of test and trace, the procurement of PPE and the transfer of patients from hospitals to care homes… There was plenty of blame to go around in this early period, but responsibility for the failure to impose a lockdown in autumn 2020 lies squarely with the prime minister. It represents a failure of judgment so catastrophic it should be unimaginable that any political career could survive it.” He concludes, “Johnson simply refused to act.” Indeed, Johnson reportedly said of the lockdown, “I’m not doing it. It’s politically impossible.”
13 Parker, Cookson, Neville and Cameron-Chileshe, 2021.
14 Shrimsley, 2021.
15 Kimber, 2021.
16 House of Commons Library, 2021a.
17 Smith, 2021.
18 Johnson, 2019.
19 House of Commons, 2021.
20 Siddique, 2020.
21 Montgomerie, 2021.
22 Hardman, 2021a. Hardman’s account of the unfolding crisis in The Spectator is worth noting since, as the assistant editor of what is in essence the Conservative Party’s house magazine and a stablemate of the Telegraph, she is wired into the mood among Tory MPs.
23 Payne, Parker, Hughes and Cameron-Chileshe, 2021.
24 Hardman 2021b.
25 Hardman, 2021c.
26 Hardman, 2021d.
27 Hardman, 2022a.
28 Hardman, 2022b.
29 YouGov, 2022a.
30 YouGov, 2022b.
31 Parker and Payne, 2021.
32 Ibbetson, 2022.
33 Financial Times Editorial Board, 2021a.
34 Bower, 2021, p46. Bower’s biography aims, despite all evidence to the contrary, to polish Johnson’s reputation. The book is replete with Bower’s prejudices against Labour and the trade unions and is poisonous towards Jeremy Corbyn.
35 Bower, 2021, p76.
36 Bower, 2021, p207.
37 Applebaum, 2021, p70.
38 Applebaum, 2021, p70.
39 Bower, 2021, p355.
40 Stephens, 2022, p250.
41 Stephens, 2022, p258.
42 Stephens, 2022, p265.
43 Stephens, 2022, p266.
44 Routledge and Hoggart, 1993.
45 The Exchange Rate Mechanism linked EU member states’ currencies within fixed exchange rate margins as a precursor to introducing the euro.
46 Bower, 2021, p240.
47 Barrett, 2012.
48 Kwarteng, Patel and others, 2012.
49 Hope, 2020.
50 Fisher, 2021.
51 Parker, 2021a.
52 Spectator Steerpike column, 2021.
53 BBC News, 2021.
55 Financial Times reporters, 2022.
56 Payne, 2022a.
57 Johnson and Sunak, 2022.
58 Parker and Giles, 2021.
59 Shah, 2022.
60 Wolf, 2022.
61 Shipman, 2022.
62 House of Commons Library, 2021b.
63 Pickard and Thomas, 2021a.
64 New Economics Foundation, 2020, p13. It is worth noting that, although Britain has been in the vanguard of deregulation—or “better regulation” as it is routinely referred to by free market enthusiasts—it is not alone. The New Economics Foundation’s report Reprotecting Europe notes “better regulation” programmes in Germany and France and at the European Commission that seek to “reduce the volume of new regulations and the overall cost of regulation”.
65 Financial Times Editorial Board, 2021b.
66 Parker, Foster and Fleming, 2021.
67 Parker and Payne, 2021.
68 Empson, 2022.
69 Goodman, 2022.
70 Malnick, 2022a.
71 Malnick, 2022b.
72 Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee, 2022.
73 Choonara, 2022.
74 Shipman, 2022.
75 Shrimsley, 2022b.
76 Parker, 2021b.
77 Pickard, 2021.
78 Pickard and Thomas, 2021b.
79 Payne, 2022b.