Fresh Disasters

Given how things have been going, defeat for the governing Conservatives in two Westminster byelections yesterday wasn’t unexpected. All the same, the results make another Tory push to topple Johnson more likely.

Tiverton and Honiton in rural Devon (Tory majority: 24,000) fell to the Liberal Democrats on a 30% swing, the third such capsizal in little over a year. On paper it was one of the 50 safest Conservative seats in the country, so you can hear the rattle of Conservative nerves. The Telegraph’s Allison Pearson wrote ahead of the poll that were reversals of such magnitude widely seen at a general election (an unlikely contingency), the Tories would face ‘an extinction-level event’. The Party chairman resigned early this morning.

Meanwhile Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire (Tory majority: 3,000) on a 13% swing. Wakefield is one of the pro-Brexit historic Labour seats that fell to the Conservatives in 2019. The byelection there pitted a Tory candidate who had recently lost a vote of confidence among local Conservative councillors against a Labour staffer parachuted in by Starmer against the wishes of the constituency party executive, which resigned en masse protesting ‘jackboot diplomacy’.

Despite that hiccup, last night’s results show that opposition parties are nibbling away at the cross-regional Conservative bloc assembled by Cameron, May and Johnson between 2015 and 2019. An anonymous memo circulating among Tory MPs warns that Johnson is ‘no longer an electoral asset’ but rather a drag on their prospects. ‘He will lose Red Wall seats (with majorities under 10,000) to Labour, and Blue Wall seats (majorities up to 20,000) to the Liberal Democrats. At least 160 MPs are at risk’. YouGov polling suggests that if a general election were held tomorrow, Labour would prevail in 85 of 88 Con–Lab marginals across England and Wales. The shift in opinion would not be enough to secure Labour a parliamentary majority, however. Johnson is still seen as a more credible prime minister than Starmer, against whom frustrated Blairites are manoeuvring ahead of conference season.

For their part, the Liberal Democrats used to be good for around 60 out of 650 Commons seats, on a par with the present strength of the Scottish Nationalists. The product of a 1980s merger between the rump Liberal Party and a breakaway from the Labour right, they were all but wiped out by Cameron in 2015, the ideological sameness of his Tory-Liberal coalition leaving voters little reason to back the monkey over the organ grinder. Today, by contrast, a patter of ‘Tory sleaze’ and reassuring absence of any connection to organized labour make them a low-risk centrist alternative for a swathe of middle England.

The byelections were triggered by the resignation in disgrace of the Tory incumbents: a conviction for sexual assault in one case; complaints that an MP had watched porn on his phone in the House of Commons chamber in the other. Johnson’s own popularity began to slide last autumn when he whipped a vote to protect a former Tory minister and staunch Brexiteer, Owen Paterson, from parliamentary sanctions for over-zealous corporate lobbying.  

Writing in the FT, Camilla Cavendish, head of policy under Cameron, criticized the administration’s ‘over-hasty decisions, a cavalier attitude to convention and a deep cynicism which assumes that, with a weak opposition, nothing matters much’. The Conservative right had fallen prey to a ‘peculiar combination of preening and paranoia’, Cavendish complained, pointing a finger at Tory éminence grise Charles Moore, Johnson’s former boss at the Telegraph and one of Paterson’s vocal defenders. Paterson ultimately resigned and the Lib Dems won his rural North Shropshire seat on a 34% swing, as the first press stories surfaced of after-work parties in Downing Street that breached Covid regulations.

Johnson was fined for a lockdown birthday celebration, the first time police have charged a sitting prime minister. His dishonesty is proverbial, but hasn’t yet scaled the heights of Blair’s Dodgy Dossier, with its spurious intelligence claims about Iraqi WMDs. It’s hard to measure changes in the scale of political malfeasance over time. New Labour was embroiled in sleaze from start to finish, from Pugin wallpaper and the Ecclestone Affair to Lobbygate and Loans for Lordships, not to mention Peter Mandelson’s two resignations – there was enough material by the time of Blair’s departure in 2007 for Tory bloggers to fill a substantial book. But New Labour didn’t come to grief until the financial crisis took the wind from its sails, after which Brown flailed around in a parliamentary expenses scandal.

What may ultimately tell for Johnson is not just the scandals themselves, but the government’s disorientation as it responds to a third year of emergency conditions: the pandemic and now surging prices. Inflation is the highest in the G7 and affects a broader range of goods and services than elsewhere in Europe, partly due to Brexit difficulties. Johnson has so far provided less help to cushion the rising cost of living than either Macron (in an election year) or Scholz and Lindner, once accompanying tax rises are factored in. Nevertheless, the latest £15bn package of subsidies grudgingly disbursed by chancellor Rishi Sunak on 26 May was the straw that broke the Tory camel’s back. ‘This can’t go on. It really can’t. Does anyone seriously believe it can?’, asked Allison Pearson, in a Telegraph column underscoring how intensely Tory members and donors felt about the government’s ‘quasi-socialist’ economic policies, its ‘ruinous’ commitment to Net Zero and the ‘punitive’ weight of personal taxation.

The Telegraph is Johnson’s newspaper of choice and the last surviving Fleet Street broadsheet after cost-cutting rivals downsized to tabloid format. A Tory bastion, the general tenor of its Comment section is that distracted ministers have squandered the opportunities of Brexit and allowed a left-wing ‘Blob’ to expand beyond its customary locales in the BBC, the teaching unions and town halls, smothering all initiative in Whitehall. Johnson and Sunak aren’t villains, just weak reeds. Drift is a common complaint; ‘it has to be arrested quickly’, an editorial warns. Lord David Frost, Johnson’s chief Brexit negotiator, who resigned from the government because of its ‘coercive’ Covid restrictions and ‘sub-Labour high-tax, high-spend policies’, uses his new Telegraph perch to demand tax cuts, unilateral tariff reduction and a smaller though still selectively interventionist state.   

Sherelle Jacobs, a Telegraph Comment editor, laments how failures of leadership have brought a ‘promising quasi-populism’ to the point of outright failure. Johnson’s ‘unapologetic faith in British exceptionalism rallied the Tory shires; his rebellious optimism resonated with the Red Wall’, she recalls. But the prime minister has squandered his political capital through fiscal profligacy and personal waywardness. To many, the old Etonian ‘has come to epitomise the Establishment’s worst vices – its tendency to nihilism, its disdainful elitism, and its entrapment in behaviour patterns of mediocrity and muddling through’. Left behind by the tech boom despite rhetoric about world-beating British science, the UK economy has been running on fumes since the 1990s. The ineluctable upshot of ruling-class failure to overhaul the country’s institutions amidst intensified international competition will be ‘a new era of epic decline’ as systemic weaknesses come to a head.

Whitehall’s preoccupations are more immediate. The government has tried to shore up its base through the forcible removal of asylum seekers to camps in Kagame’s Rwanda, currently blocked by the courts; legislation to disapply parts of the UK–EU Withdrawal Agreement; and tough talk against striking rail workers and public-sector pay claims. ‘Should one have confidence in a coherent Boris vision of Britain coming to the rescue?’, wonders Charles Moore. ‘I hope so, but I don’t expect it.’ No disasters, only opportunities for fresh disasters, is Johnson’s credo, with which he regaled Telegraph readers after being sacked from the Tory shadow frontbench in 2004 for lying about an affair.  

Backbench rebels need just 32 more MPs to mark their ballot against the prime minister in the next vote of confidence, whenever it comes. Johnson survived the last one on 6 June by 211 to 148 votes, a margin almost as parlous as that Thatcher recorded immediately before her downfall. Moore backs Johnson against his more self-righteous Tory critics, although less heartily than he once defended Thatcher. He has confidence in the prime minister, but not full confidence. None of the potential leadership candidates cuts through with the public, Moore points out. Yet with midterm Conservativism in such a malaise, the party may anyway choose to roll the dice.  

Read on: Perry Anderson,‘Ukania Perpetua?’, NLR 125.