Big Dog Bleeding Badly

Dave Kellaway asks if Boris Johnson can recover from his political mauling


Former Prime Minister Teresa May must have sensed things were going to be worse than expected for Johnson on Monday night. She came to the vote in her best clothes. They say revenge is a dish best served cold. She must have eaten well after nine o’clock yesterday evening.

The no-confidence result of 211 versus 148 was beyond the very top end of what the rebels expected and far higher than the loyalists wanted. Nearly all the pundits were saying before the vote that anything over 140 would mean he was gone in months.

A rising disaffection of MPs and public opinion has been spurred on by a sequence of images as much as by any inquiries or debates in the house – the laughter of Allegra Stratton at the press conference rehearsal; the Downing street garden party; Johnson raising a glass at a leaving do; and the real tiebreaker, the booing of the prime minister on the steps of St Pauls on live Jubilee TV.

Once confronted with the reality of a confidence vote, after his team had rubbished the possibility a week ago, Johnson went for an immediate vote. He was fearful that in two weeks’ time, after the predicted bye-election defeats in blue wall Tiverton and red wall Wakefield, the revolt would be even bigger. Clearly, he and his team were shocked by the result despite the frenzied lobbying he had personally been carrying out all day.

For him to say that a win was a win and it was decisive has been contradicted even by the mainstream media. Teresa May actually had a smaller number of MPs revolt against her, and so did Major and Thatcher. Each time the sitting Prime Minister won such votes but they were pyrrhic victories and they were all gone in weeks or months.

With 41% of your MPs having no confidence in you it is difficult to see how you can get much legislation through parliament. This is significant because Johnson is keen to get measures through parliament that will please his base. He has been desperately throwing out red meat to his Tory heartland – tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol that he had himself signed, imperial measures, grammar schools, selling off housing association property cheaply and tax cuts. Looking at the MP’s vote, this has not done him much good so far.

Tory crisis is toxic

Some of the rebels have talked about reshuffles, changing direction and re-unifying the party but as one MP said, Johnson only has one gear and that is forward.  When asked about ‘partygate’ in his speech to the 1922 committee of Tory MPs, Johnson replied that he would do the whole thing again. The way journalists have been briefed before and after the vote suggests that he is doubling down. Rebels are described as disgruntled and a front for remainers (‘remoaners’) trying to hold back the great benefits (sic) of Brexit. It is hard to see sweetness and harmony re-emerging among Tories given the vitriol that has been liberally splashed about.

Certainly, there is a difference with this revolt insofar as there is no Heseltine or Johnson dynamically leading the uprising against the Prime Minister. There is no single big political issue like Brexit that glues together the rebellion. This is a weakness if the revolt is to be carried forward through a run of bye-election defeats and the privileges committee report on whether Johnson misled parliament. On the other hand, the rebels include people from all wings of the party so there is a broad source of further recruits. 

Although there is a lot of pious talk about lying, the breakdown in trust between politicians and the people and undermining our glorious democratic institutions the basic motivation of most of these Tory MPs is existential – they do not want to lose their seats. It is a comfortable job with good salaries, privileges and status. Indeed, this reaction is particularly strong among some of the new red wall Tories who do not have lucrative careers as businesspeople or lawyers to fall back on.

A  continuing crisis of bourgeois hegemony

The current situation reflects the continued crisis of traditional mainstream parties of both right and left confronted with the triple economic, health and environmental global crises. For the British capitalist class, Brexit has been a particular nightmare and its favoured political party has delivered a Brexit result that the dominant sectors have not appreciated at all. In France, Italy and Spain among other European countries, the mainstream parties have experienced even worse crises with some of them becoming marginalised from the national political scene.

For the Tories, there is a contradiction between maintaining the Brexit coalition between the so-called red wall constituencies, former Labour de-industrialised strongholds, and the blue wall seats in the rural and home counties. The red wall support welcomes the pork barrel investment in their areas which leaves the blue wall people worried about extra taxes to pay for it. Socially liberal policies are more popular in the blue wall than the red wall too, so rolling out right-populist measures can divide this coalition. The failure of Brexit to bring prosperity or more control as well as the deep cost of living crisis is making this coalition look more and more like a one-off event. The 148 Tories who voted no confidence in Johnson do not have a solution to the problem but are more aware of the overall crisis of perspective. Johnson has had to spend a lot of energy in the last months fighting for survival; it does not help him develop coherent policies.

And the winners are….Labour, the Liberals and Greens

Unfortunately, this Tory crisis has not been brought about by the Labour Party leading a massive popular campaign against Tory policies. Disaffection with Johnson has not translated into enthusiasm for either Starmer or Labour. National opinion polls on the eve of the vote last night only gave Labour a small lead. Vox pop style interviews by Sky and BBC news today in Britain’s most marginal seat, Bury, still showed some support for Johnson and nobody referenced a Labour alternative.

He is a dead man walking and even the lacklustre Starmer will be able to repeatedly nail him at PMQs.

Nevertheless, the rebellion is good news for Starmer. The result has seriously wounded Johnson but he may be able to stagger on for a few more months yet, perhaps until the Tory conference in September. He is a dead man walking and even the lacklustre Starmer will be able to repeatedly nail him at PMQs. The Labour leader will be able to argue that his witch hunt of all things Corbyn and his decisive shift to the right are working out well. There will be even less pressure for him to adopt more radical policies to win a big majority in the next election. Angela Rayner, deputy leader, did not focus on the government policies hurting working people in her response but went on and on about the disunited Tories against a united Labour team. Somehow for her, the key thing about Labour is that it is a better defender of our very flawed democratic institutions. Governments usually lose elections more than opposition parties win them and if you put this crisis alongside the long period of Tory rule it looks likely this government will lose the next one.

Recent elections and polls point to the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the Scottish Nationalists also benefitting from Johnson’s malaise. It is noticeable that Scottish Tories are most critical of Johnson – they feel the winds of oblivion upon them. The extreme moderation of Labour, for example, Starmer has rejected the Labour party policy of nationalising the utility companies, will continue to push radical and progressive voters into the hands of the Greens. Just the other day at our allotment party I met several ex-Corbyn enthusiasts who had left Labour but are very active in eco-campaigns today.

It can help our struggles

If you are playing a team game like football or rugby and you start to see the other team arguing among themselves you know your chances of winning improve. When your class enemy is divided badly it is usually helpful to anybody struggling or campaigning on the other side. Rail workers who are taking action or teachers and civil servants considering it soon will be somewhat encouraged by the government’s disarray. Campaigners against the attacks on public broadcasting at the BBC or Channel 4 will be more directly stimulated by the knowledge that some of the 148 Tory MPs have publicly come out against those policies. The same goes for government attacks on democratic rights and against migrants – some of these MPs have spoken out against Patel and Johnson.

Johnson is a wounded animal today. Do not be surprised if we see someone from within his ‘loyalist’ cabinet start to make serious moves against him.

Divisions and crises in the government show they are not all-powerful, they have weaknesses and they are vulnerable. A chance for change looks a bit more likely. The emperor is seen without any clothes.

We have all been fascinated by those wildlife films when we see the lions attacking a herd of wildebeest. If a leading bull is attacked and severely wounded the herd has to decide whether to protect or leave the animal to his fate. Usually, it is the latter and there is then a contest –sometimes violent – to decide who the new lead bull is. Johnson is a wounded animal today. Do not be surprised if we see someone from within his ‘loyalist’ cabinet start to make serious moves against him. Politics, like nature, is governed by certain objective laws.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.


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