Boris Johnson lives on to fight another day. The local election results were bad for the Conservatives but not good enough for Labour. Johnson’s MPs are not terrified enough to remove him in the immediate aftermath. I suspect the elections were never going to be the trigger. Leaders can always point to a success somewhere in the country. In his case, Johnson notes that parts of the so-called ‘red wall’ are holding firm.
This does not mean Johnson is safe for the long term. Over the weekend I spoke to several Tory MPs alarmed at the collapse of support in London and the south of England. They fear a fatal dynamic, the Liberal Democrats gaining seats from them in some parts of the country and Labour doing the same elsewhere. Their anxieties deepen when they reflect that the cost of living crisis is likely to intensify.
Johnson’s first substantial response to the election losses takes the form of tomorrow’s Queen’s Speech, a legislative programme composed with the next election in mind. The forthcoming Brexit bill is emblematic. Nearly all the initiatives aimed at moving away from EU regulatory frameworks have already been announced. By putting them together in a bill, Johnson seeks to make Brexit a defining issue once again. Similarly, I am told that some of the proposals that will be included in a ‘levelling up’ bill do not necessarily require legislation. The theme is what matters as much as the content. For businesses wondering what the dividing lines will be at the next general election, Johnson’s words in the Commons tomorrow afternoon following the Queen’s Speech will provide part of the answer.
What is not in the Queen’s Speech is also as significant as the content. For all the huffing and puffing there will be no bill clearing the way for the government to unilaterally disown the Northern Ireland protocol. Even Johnson at his most populist does not want to alienate the Biden administration and the EU in quite such a provocative manner, not least with the Ukraine crisis far from resolved. Even so, expect renewed ministerial attempts to renegotiate the protocol in the next few weeks, accompanied by threats to trigger Article 16. The other ‘missing bill’ on housebuilding is also a sign that Tory backbenchers are becoming more muscular. Johnson’s plans for what was one hailed as a “house building revolution” are dumped as a result of the insurrectionary threats from Conservative MPs in the south of England.
The calm ceremony of the Queen’s Speech will be in marked contrast to the wider political storms. Politics has rarely been more topsy turvy. For months there was speculation about whether Boris Johnson could survive ‘partygate’. Now there is a near panic at the top of the Labour Party about Keir Starmer’s fate being in the hands of the Durham police.
We do not know what the police will decide in its reopened investigation. But if Starmer survives, shadow cabinet members reflect privately that there are already lessons for him arising from ‘Beergate’. The first is that he will face hostile newspapers that are out to get him and to hail Johnson. Although he has sought to be as inoffensively ‘centrist’ as Tony Blair was in the run up to 1997, he is not going to enjoy a similarly supportive set of newspapers. The Daily Mail, The Sun and The Telegraph have played down Johnson’s partying and propelled Starmer’s work meeting in Durham to the top of the political agenda. At the very least they have succeeded in neutering Starmer. He was due to give interviews at the weekend and attend an event today at the Institute of Government. To the bewilderment of some in the shadow cabinet these were cancelled. If Johnson gets more penalty notices while the Durham police continue their investigation, Starmer’s response will be impossibly constrained. I have spoken to several shadow cabinet members who are genuinely worried about this development and what it might portend. Even if Starmer is cleared, he knows he must be prepared for a newspaper onslaught similar to that experienced by Neil Kinnock. His media operation will need to be much more robust in the face of inevitable further attacks.
The local elections suggest that a hung parliament is a possibility after the next general election. This would mean a minority Labour government or a Lib/Lab coalition. None of the other parties would do a deal with the Conservatives. For businesses trying to make sense of the current wild political context perhaps the most useful comparison is with the two elections in 1974 that took place during an economic crisis even deeper than the current one. There was considerable disillusionment with both major parties then and their leaders. The Liberal party was enjoying a revival and in a minor way so was the SNP in Scotland. The February 1974 election produced a hung parliament and the October election a few months later gave Labour a tiny overall majority. Over the last weekend Number 10 carried out an effective spin operation suggesting Johnson was fairly pleased with the election results. If he was, he must be delusional.
Perhaps the most significant results were in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The SNP wins every election in Scotland almost as a matter of course. Some Tory and Labour MPs wonder whether this will change until there is a second referendum. Nicola Sturgeon can always deploy the Westminster resistance to another poll as a weapon: Scotland votes for independence but Westminster won’t allow us to have a referendum. Labour is taking comfort from coming second in Scotland and some at the top of the party dare to hope it might win a few more seats there at the next general election.
The rise of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland was perhaps inevitable following Johnson’s chosen Brexit route. Although he protests about the subsequent protocol, he was the one that proposed a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. There would have been no such barrier under Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Inevitably Northern Ireland’s economy moves closer to Ireland’s and is more distant from the rest of the UK, not a bad context for Sinn Fein to make its moves. This does not mean a united Ireland is a feasible prospect in the near term, but it becomes part of a destabilising mood in which a significant number of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland want to break away from the UK. Johnson is not well placed to address the situation as his presence and conduct fuels the mood.
The key developments to look out for in the coming months are the Gray report and the end of the Metropolitan police investigation, the outcome of the Durham police investigation, embryonic leadership campaigns on both sides, a reshuffle if Johnson survives the Gray report, but above all the build up to Rishi Sunak’s budget in the autumn, a pivotal event and one made more demanding by the failure of his Spring Statement. On many fronts get ready for a turbulent summer and early autumn.
Steve will be unpacking what the government’s legislative programme will mean for businesses and, in the wake of the local elections and what we can expect from the next parliamentary session in the latest WA webinar at 9am on Wednesday 11th May. You can register to join the event here.