Little more than two years since Boris Johnson won a near landslide election victory he is in deep danger. In this blog I’ll outline Downing Street’s strategy aimed at saving Johnson and why a significant number of Conservative MPs and party members do not believe it will work. I’ll also highlight three other big themes in 2022 that will shape British politics whether Johnson survives or not.
At Prime Minister’s Questions Johnson sought to square a circle. He knew he had to issue an apology, but that the contrition had to be extremely limited. If he had apologised for attending a party, he would have had to resign for misleading the House of Commons, irrespective of whether he broke his own lockdown rules. Instead, he said ‘sorry’ for the way the garden gathering was perceived, admitted he attended but that he regarded it “implicitly” as a work event. Then he hid behind the shield of the investigation being conducted by the senior civil servant, Sue Gray.
The Gray report forms the second part of Number 10’s strategy. Johnson and his closest allies hope that Gray will take a limited view of her remit. She will investigate what happened without making judgements on whether Johnson broke the rules. Johnson’s allies point to her brief. She has been asked to conduct an investigation and not to answer the question “Did the Prime Minister break his own rules?”
On this assumption of Gray’s narrow responsibilities, Number 10 may well prove to be correct. She is a civil servant. Arguably it is not her role to reach a judgement on whether Johnson is lying when he claims he regarded the garden party as a work event. On this basis, Johnson dares to hope he will be able to claim that the investigation clears him of misconduct and mendacity. In the meantime, he has sent out cabinet ministers to defend him on the airwaves, although all are struggling to do so effectively. Jacob Rees Mogg has generated further waves describing the party’s leader in Scotland as a lightweight.
Number 10 do not know for sure what Gray will conclude or when her report will be completed. I have spoken to several politicians investigated by Gray in the past, or who have worked with her. They broadly concur that while she is forensically independent, she will not choose to be the judge over whether Johnson broke the rules and lied about doing so. We will know soon enough. If she does reach such a conclusion, Johnson will resign immediately. If she does not do so he will try to keep going. Johnson is ferociously competitive and seeks a ‘Churchillian’ legacy, Churchill being his great hero. He does not want to be forced out in this shaming context.
The problem with Number 10’s strategy is that the Gray report is bound to be damning even if it is written in measured prose and avoids overt judgments. We know enough already without waiting for Gray’s investigation. Johnson has admitted there was a garden gathering and that he attended. Voters have decided it was a party even if Johnson has not. So have most of his MPs and party members. There is also much speculation at Westminster that there are more revelations to come. Even if that proves not to be the case, there has been plenty of material already.
More immediately the airwaves are punctuated by Tory voices calling on Johnson to go. This is not that unusual. There were plenty of Conservatives demanding that Theresa May went. But note that she did indeed resign in the end. In Johnson’s case his authority over his government and party was derived solely from his ability to win elections and remain popular. After the Conservatives gained Hartlepool in a by-election last summer, he was the most powerful Prime Minister in modern times with no figure in the government or beyond daring to scrutinise him critically. Blair had Brown as a mighty counter. Cameron had to work with the Lib Dems in a coalition. May led an unruly party in a hung parliament. Johnson was master of all he surveyed. Now the Conservatives are ten points behind Labour in the polls and a majority of voters believe Johnson should resign. His mighty authority over his party has collapsed.
The only mechanism that removes Johnson is in the hands of Conservative MPs. If fifty five of them send letters of no confidence to the chair of the 1922 committee, Graham Brady, Tory MPs will vote on his leadership. Theresa May endured such a vote and won, but it was only a fleeting victory. I doubt if Johnson could survive such an insurrectionary move. I know a few of the MPs who have sent in their letters. They are from the older generation in the parliamentary party, ministers from the Cameron era. They had sent in their letters before the latest revelations about the garden party. Brady will never even hint at how many letters he has received, but he will have had a few more in recent days. Neither Sunak nor Truss will seek to overtly topple Johnson, but their much-delayed tweets of support on Wednesday night were one of many signs that they are making feverish calculations about a possible leadership contest.
Whether Johnson stays or goes, this will be a testing year for the government on several other fronts. Sunak had hoped that the coming twelve months would be one of fiscal consolidation. He seeks to hail prudent management of the economy in this mid-term phase so that he has the space for credible pre-election tax cuts. Although Johnson agreed with him in their discussions last year that he would need to keep a tight rein on public spending for now, there are already counter pressures. Sunak has told Gove that there will be no additional money for his levelling up white paper. The publication of the white paper is seen by Johnson as a pivotal moment. One of the many reasons that the much-delayed White Paper will focus on devolution of power is because such constitutional reforms do not cost money. Gove has brought in Andy Haldane, formerly from the Bank of England, to advise him. I suspect Haldane’s private view is that much higher levels of investment are required to make ‘levelling up’ work. Sunak won’t give them an additional penny for now. Nonetheless Sunak will reluctantly spend more in other areas. The government will intervene to cut energy bills and that will cost additional cash in the short term at least.
The NHS will be the other big theme, whether Coivd fades or rages once more. Johnson and Sajid Javid are acutely aware that the backlog of operations, the record-breaking waiting lists, could become a huge issue at the next election. But even with the substantial tax rise being implemented in April they are not confident that the delays can be addressed speedily. Meanwhile the national insurance rise was supposed to pay for elderly care in the long term. Will ministers go into the next election arguing that they are transferring the additional cash from the NHS budget to pay for social care? If not, how will they pay for social care? More widely Javid inherited a White Paper that will introduce further sweeping reforms of the NHS, not all of which he fully supports. These will be big issues for whoever is Prime Minister.
Finally, the year is a challenge and an opportunity for Keir Starmer. An opinion poll lead is a gift for an opposition leader. The media will take him more seriously. He and his Shadow Cabinet will be viewed as a potential alternative government rather than as a bunch of losers. If he rises to this newly elevated perception, the poll lead will feed on itself. If he does not do so, Johnson will not be the only leader in trouble. His challenge will be to connect policies to broadly expressed apolitical values such as ’respect’ and ‘prosperity’. This is not easy, but Starmer has the huge boost of facing a government that appears vulnerable for the first time since the December 2019 election and he is performing more confidently.
The fate of Johnson is not yet decided. For certain, the cost of living, the internal debate in the Conservative party over whether the government should cut taxes or spend more, the future of the NHS and the performance of Starmer will be big themes in 2022…as the next general election moves in to view.
Steve Richards is a new member of WA’s advisory board, providing political intelligence and strategic counsel to WA’s extensive client roster. Over the last few turbulent years, it has been imperative for clients and organisations to have unrivalled political intelligence to inform their businesses. This year looks to be no less tempestuous and, consequently, Steve’s insights will be invaluable for all WA clients.