Same colour, same aim
Boris Johnson narrowly survived, but he is far from secure. However, the left needs to go beyond chanting ‘Tories out’, because today that implicitly means ‘Sir Keir and Blue Labour in’, says Paul Demarty
Certain bare facts must be recounted, first of all, if we are to make sense of last week’s attempt to end Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative Party.
They come in the form of a series of magic numbers: 54 (the number of Tory MPs who must formally request a vote of confidence in the leader for one to take place); 180 (the number of MPs who would have had to vote against Johnson to offload him); and 163 (the minimum size of the ‘payroll vote’ - those MPs who enjoy privileges in the gift of the prime minister, from cabinet ministers down to trade envoys and party vice-chairs).
It will not tax even the most mathematically challenged reader to point out that 54 is a far smaller number than 180. The calling of a confidence vote, therefore, is a far easier thing to achieve than the overthrow of the incumbent - especially when nearly half of the electorate is in hock to the PM for some sinecure or other. So far as we can tell, Johnson also faced no rebellion in his cabinet or among his whips - the two places where division might have counted against him. A ‘big beast’ resigning from the front bench to vote against him would have shaken things up; a weakened whips’ office might have allowed backbenchers to conspire more ambitiously. As things were, Johnson maintained the power of initiative throughout.
There is, finally, the matter of timing. Johnson is fortunate that his enemies were unable to keep their powder dry until after the two by-elections later this month. One, Wakefield, is one of those famous ‘red wall’ constituencies poached from Labour in the 2019 Hottentot election (albeit one where the Tories had run Labour close in recent elections); the other, Tiverton and Honiton, is a rural constituency in mid-Devon which (including its various predecessors) has returned Conservative MPs since 1923. Both look likely to fall, to Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively. If a confidence vote was held under such circumstances, with the press relentlessly declaring the grand Bozza coalition breaking apart at both ends, you could imagine him losing - just about.
And yet, with all these advantages, Johnson’s survival was hardly comfortable. His opponents obtained 41% of the vote, which equals those against Margaret Thatcher in 1990, and is a better showing than Boris and friends got against Theresa May in 2019.
We need hardly spell out the implications here. If the actual win-or-lose result in these contests is comically skewed towards the Tory leader (especially when in government, with so many more junior ministerial posts and parliamentary private secretary jobs to go around!), the Conservative Party is not so degenerate an institution that a mere vote will stop its representatives from doing what needs to be done, and defenestrating those in need of defenestration.
It would seem, then, that Johnson is in graver trouble than we might have thought. The vote of confidence itself was no enormous surprise - the PM has been under pressure throughout the period of the Partygate scandal; a brief reprieve courtesy of one Vladimir Putin and his foolish and bloody invasion of Ukraine has, if anything, tended to make things worse over the long term. The economic fallout of the west’s anti-Russia policy is a huge factor in a looming cost-of-living crisis; nobody has been more hysterical in its anti-Russian rhetoric than the British government and political class. That there is nothing between Johnson and Starmer on this issue (except, perhaps, that Starmer is more belligerent) hardly matters; it is the government, not the opposition, who will carry the can for high prices at the petrol pump and the electricity meter.
But there are always contingencies like this, if not always quite so existentially dramatic. After all, governments tend to lose by-elections. Shock results in previously safe seats are not enormously uncommon in the years between general elections. The fact that the vote was so close is, on the face of it, extremely worrying for Johnson. It is likely that all, or close to all, 148 of the MPs who voted against him did so not out of short-term opportunism, but because they genuinely believe he is in for a hiding at the next general election. It is not at all likely that all the remainder believe he is on course to win. Some will have been bribed; others will have succumbed to cowardice; still others will despair of any replacement, and have thought it best to stick with Boris on the ‘Always keep a-hold of nurse, for fear of finding something worse’ principle.
It is, above all, a testament to how bereft the Tories are of plausible alternatives to Johnson right now. May was unable to survive a less humiliating vote, because she was encircled by hungry sharks. By contrast, Johnson is surrounded only by diffident, error-prone guppies. Cronyism is the watchword of the Johnson administration, which has given us such a parade of nonentities in key roles, it is enough to make us nostalgic for the glory days of Chris Grayling. The one obvious exception was Rishi Sunak, an old-school Thatcherite hardliner with a bit of showbiz about him, but he too is tangled up in Partygate, along with a clutch of scandals related to his dubious tax status; and if there is one thing worse than being prime minister during a cost of living squeeze, it is being chancellor of the exchequer.
That leaves: Liz Truss, whose gaffe-proneness at the foreign office is truly something to behold; Ben Wallace, who gets to be defence secretary during a wartime atmosphere, but without any brave boys returning home in body bags; Penny Mordaunt who … but already we are running out of ideas. There are no big beasts left: only Boris, the biggest and beastliest of them all. His response to all this bad press - something we learned from leaked documents is called Operation Red Meat - is to bang on the national-chauvinist drum like a demented apprentice boy at an Orange march. This week’s cut of red meat is the unilateral revision of the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets up a nice slanging match with the old enemy, Brussels - not likely to the profit of the Six Counties statelet, but perhaps to the profit of the prime minister.
It is customary, in such situations, for the left to gloat, and attempt however possible to speed the demise of the incumbent. “Boris = dead man walking”, said the subject line of a Momentum mailshot last week, appending a coffin emoji for those incapable of understanding the concept of death (which presumably includes those Momentum officials who still think their project has a bright future): Johnson “may have scraped by amongst Conservative MPs tonight - but, with the Tories in civil war, a general election might be just around the corner. Our movement must get ready.”
The June 8 Socialist Worker, meanwhile, went for the straightforward “Finish him off” by way of a front-page headline. The full reasoning comes towards the end of the article:
It’s important if Johnson goes. It will underline that the hold our rulers have is always fragile, and their filthy lies can always be punctured. He would, of course, be replaced by another Tory committed to corporate power and profit. But the new prime minister would be much weaker, without a mandate and without the fake anti-elitism that Johnson cultivated. They would be plunged immediately into a sharp social emergency of mass poverty and falling living standards.1
Another Socialist Worker article declared that “the key task now is to use the Tories’ crisis to force them out”, and that “more struggle in the streets and the workplaces will be needed to halt the attacks on working class people and make the calls for a general election into a reality”, This last article, of course, was not published last week, but in 2019, shortly after Theresa May’s resignation.2 Which is the fundamental problem with the dead-man-walking, Tories-in-crisis analysis typical of the SWP, Momentum and friends. As the great Hank Williams sang, we’ve been down that road before - and very, very recently at that; and it brought us … here, via the immolation of the Jeremy Corbyn project, of which Momentum was so much a part.
It is, to be sure, difficult to see how the Tories could come out of all this stronger, whether or not Johnson goes. As we have noted, there is no clear and obvious replacement who could easily unite the upper-middle class reactionary MP out in the shires with the ‘levelling-up’ populist in a crack of the red wall. The Tory Party, however, is a battle-hardened organisation, and in the end can act ruthlessly to preserve its rule, as it did by offloading May.
Though the rightwing media has generally been critical of Johnson in the wake of his confidence vote, we are not in a situation where significant parts of it seem likely to promote the only reasonable alternative and back Labour, as the Murdoch press did in the 1990s, however ‘moderate’ the Labour Party’s current leadership. A new Tory leader would not have the same mandate as Johnson, true, but we have a parliamentary system at the end of the day: the Tories have a large majority. There is no reason for any new leader to call a fresh election, so long as no large faction of the party is prepared to vote no confidence in the government, not their leader. There is little sign of that, either.
That is not to say that the Tories will win next time around. Polls currently suggest a Labour minority government, or Labour-led coalition. Would that be some great step forward for the working class - with Sir Keir in charge? For Momentum, the affirmative answer is more or less an article of faith, and the purpose of its mailout was to lighten members’ wallets in order to get “good socialists” like Bell Ribeiro-Addy and Zarah Sultana and so on re-elected. But why would they show any more spine in the next parliament than the existing crop of “socialist” MPs have in this parliament? The lot of them withdrew their signatures from an anodyne Stop the War Coalition statement on Ukraine. Why? To save their precious careers after threats of the whip being withdrawn. (If only Corbyn and Momentum had showed even such minimal ruthlessness as Starmer!) A Starmer government will be a Blue Labour government through and through, given the total demoralisation and marginalisation of the Labour left.
There certainly are historic instances where determined working class action has brought down Tory governments. When the Edward Heath government introduced the Industrial Relations Act, mass strikes in solidarity with jailed dockworkers quickly rendered it a dead letter. Heath called an early election under the slogan, “Who rules?” - and lost to Labour!
Surely not even the most optimistic leftwinger, however, expects a similar kind of outcome from this weekend’s TUC day of action; and we need hardly ask why. What separates those days from today is above all the lack of such a militant, strong union movement; and above all a Communist Party numbering 20,000 or more, which provided the cadre that to a large extent formed and led the unions’ corps of militants.
It is the need for such a party - indeed, a much larger party, without the defects of political opportunism that plagued the ‘official’ CPGB - that has been so strenuously ignored by the far left over many decades, which leaves it hoping that the occasional and inevitable moments of disarray in the enemy camp will inevitably redound to the benefit of the socialist cause.
We will not deny ourselves the pleasures of Schadenfreude, as we watch the odious Boris Johnson suffer. But we must protest at yet another orgy of false hopes, each more pathetic than the last.