WeeklyWorker

16.12.2021
Johnson won with 369 votes because of Labour

Sheen comes off bluster and boosterism

Derek James looks at the stunning Tory rebellion over Covid-19 safety measures and Labour’s lead in the polls

The Commons rebellion by 100 Tory MPs against the government’s Covid protection measures shows the serious political position now facing Boris Johnson. The fact that almost half of the parliamentary party voted against a major plank of his government’s Covid strategy - despite a personal appeal by Johnson to the 1922 Committee meeting immediately preceding the vote - and the fact that the measures could only be passed because of Labour support is a severe blow to his political standing and personal authority.

As leading Conservative commentator Daniel Finkelstein put it, the “Tory rebellion was a vote of no confidence” in Johnson’s leadership and in the direction his government is taking.1 So the sheen has come off the Boris brand and the electoral appeal of his blend of boosterism and bluster is now very much on the wane. As Labour increases its lead in opinion polls, it is clear that for the electorate the joke’s not funny any more.

The parliamentary vote comes after weeks of press criticism and internal crisis within the Tory Party. A whole series of scandals and causes célèbres, ranging from the Owen Patterson saga and the financing of the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat, through to the revelations about last year’s Christmas parties at No10 and Conservative HQ. Allegra Stratton’s tearful resignation only added fuel to the fire.

The significant feature of the growing chorus of criticism and the sharpness of the direct attacks on Johnson personally was that they were coming from within the Tory Party and the rightwing media rather than the usual suspects on the liberal left. When the Daily Mail, the Express and the Telegraph turn their guns on Boris Johnson and even usually friendly commentators in The Spectator raise doubts about his performance and capability, you know he really is in trouble.2 Just as important was the open opposition of sections of backbench Tories to both the government’s handling of the various crises and scandals - the whipped vote on the Patterson case seems to have particularly rankled with many of them - and its approach to the new wave of Covid.

The Tory rebellion in the Commons went beyond the hard core of Covid sceptics and confirmed opponents of government policy to include others who seemed to relish the chance to take a free hit at Johnson without the risk of defeating the government in a parliamentary vote. When MPs from different wings of the Tory Party, like the former member of Theresa May’s cabinet, Damien Green, and Mark Harper of the Covid Recovery Group, vote together against Johnson’s leadership, then the rumours of a leadership challenge and speculation about the future of the government are bound to surface.

Furthermore, when leadership hopefuls such as Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are said to be out on manoeuvres, touring the tearoom in the Commons, and inviting MPs for informal dinners to sound out potential support, the sense of a growing crisis at the top of the party seems to be only getting stronger. The studied silence of his cabinet and its failure to rush to his defence also speaks volumes.

Pantomime

While this pre-Christmas political pantomime only adds to the gaiety of the nation, providing fresh headlines for the media and producing endless speculation by the commentariat, there is a serious political aspect to what can be easily dismissed as the obsessions of the Westminster bubble. Leaving aside the personal ambitions of potential leadership contenders, which should never be discounted in bourgeois politics, there are also political fault lines and policy differences opening up within the Tory Party.

As well as the divisions over the handling of the new wave of Covid, there are clear differences over the government’s political and economic strategy, including tax cuts, public spending and the level of debt. Sunak and Truss are both making their pitch on cutting the deficit and returning to ‘traditional’ Tory policies, while Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ project and political commitments have been reined in by the treasury. To these Tory critics and many commentators, it seems that Johnson’s agenda for government - always more a set of slogans than firm proposals - has finally run out of what little steam it had. As The Economist put it, “behind the chaos and scandal of Boris Johnson’s government lies stasis”.3 It seems that Johnsonism has finally been exposed for the hollow sham we all thought: now he lives on borrowed time and only then at the sufferance of the Labour votes he needed to secure his major Covid policy.

However, whilst Johnson has clearly been weakened by recent events, his position is not yet terminal. A British prime minister has considerable powers of patronage and political influence at his/her disposal that can be deployed to ward off both external opponents across the chamber and internal enemies on the back benches. It is not easy to remove a Tory leader, although when the final collapse does come it can be quite rapid. So, whilst the Tories have a deserved reputation for unsentimental brutality in dispatching failing leaders - vide the defenestration of Thatcher and May - Johnson’s time may not be up just yet. After all, backbench unrest, political unpopularity, slumps in the opinion polls and by-election setbacks in the mid-term of a government have historically been the norm. It is only the ‘new normal’ of post-Brexit referendum politics that brought Johnson to power in the first place and the ‘unprecedented’ impact of the Covid crisis that seemed to alter those patterns. So, perhaps after this brief interlude, in which Johnson appeared to have rewritten the political rulebook, ‘normal’ service has been resumed once again?

One possible reason for this is that we can now imagine the political demise of Johnson - just look at the growth of Labour support in the opinion polls and the possibility that Keir Starmer could win the next election.4 The votes in parliament have provided just the opportunity Starmer needed to play the patriotic card, putting ‘the country’ before narrow party politics, and showing statesmanlike gravitas in the face of incompetent frivolity.5 Offering his support for the government’s Covid strategy in the face of Tory rebels and exposing Johnson’s weakness is an important part of the party games at Westminster and their echoes in the media. It is all supposed to help build support for Starmer with the audience at home.

But the audience that Sir Keir has really been appealing to since his election as Labour leader has not been amongst the mass of the electorate, but amongst the rather more rarefied circles of the ruling class. His main aim has been to demonstrate to the people who really matter that he and his party are a responsible second eleven for British capitalism and could provide a safe alternative to the Tories, should the need arise. Starmer’s attacks on the left, the continuing shift to the right in the shadow cabinet and his abject prostration before the politics and strategy of the US hegemon are all of a piece to secure this support from the bourgeoisie and so open the way to Downing Street for him.

The current crisis plays well into this strategy and he is certainly making the most of it. Starmer will hope that he can continue with this approach and that the seemingly inevitable disintegration of the Johnson government will allow him to just walk in and pick up the pieces. However, whilst not entirely a policy of masterly inactivity on Starmer’s part, this political strategy is not without its risks. It largely relies on the uncertainty of events and the Tories destroying themselves, whilst Labour stands patriotically waiting in the wings for the call. It is hardly a positive rallying call for radical change and a real alternative that will inspire an increasingly cynical electorate.

But then that is not what Keir Starmer and the Labour Party under his leadership are about: for them politics is about getting elected so that they can enjoy the perks and privileges of office that come from sitting around the cabinet table.


  1. www.thetimes.co.uk/article/voting-against-plan-b-is-a-vote-of-no-confidence-in-boris-johnson-gh8p808tq.↩︎

  2. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/12/tory-vultures-are-circling-but-they-will-only-feast-when-johnsons-time-is-up.↩︎

  3. www.economist.com/britain/behind-the-chaos-and-scandal-of-boris-johnsons-government-lies-stasis/21806682.↩︎

  4. www.theguardian.com/politics/2021/dec/11/labour-races-to-nine-point-lead-in-polls-in-wake-of-sleaze-controversies-at-no-10.↩︎

  5. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/dec/14/starmer-johnson-voting-plan-b-conservative.↩︎