PM Boris Johnson is 4 Months into the Hardest Test of his Political Life
BY: Rhys Wallis
When Boris Johnson walked back into Downing Street on the Morning of December the 13th, he must have been giddy. In the last 4 years, he had been arguably the decisive force in the Brexit campaign, seen off his great schoolboy and Conservative Party rival David Cameron, found his way to the ultimate prize, and now he was sitting on – to use his words – a ‘stonking’ mandate with an 86 seat majority. The picture now, is far less rosy. The Prime Minister now sits at the head of a party which has all the early signs of discontent. Whilst his position seems safe right now, it may not be too long before we see those rumblings of discontent turn into full blown actions to try and remove the ‘People’s Prime Minister’. So what went wrong?
Boris Johnson is divisive, let’s clear that up before we go anywhere else. He has his clear supporters, and his clear detractors. Within the Conservative Party, there are far more of the former than there are of the latter. Even within his own party, though, there are some who did not want him to be Prime Minister – we can equate them to the ‘Never Trump’ Republicans, not too many, but enough, and a couple of them are fairly big hitters in terms of the party structure. These are likely to make up the majority of those within the party who want to see him moved on, but do not underestimate the power of recent events to turn his supporters into opponents. Whenever the Conservative Party smells blood in the water, it is no longer safe for their leader to go swimming.
Now to turn to why the Prime Minister is slipping closer into the jaws of that Conservative Shark: I find 4 Cs standing in the way of the PM’s popularity; Coronavirus, Cummings, Care Homes and Cuts – to put it bluntly. The Coronavirus is not the place for a fundamentally liberal Prime Minister, maybe even a Libertarian. This is the time for government to step up to the mark, and to act their part, but Johnson would almost rather do anything else. The Government is not there to intervene at all, in Johnson’s perfect world – I don’t know if you’ve noticed, the world is far from perfect these days. Covid-19 has also opened up a whole can of worms in the UK, and many have found their way onto the Prime Minister’s desk. Boris Johnson has long been seen as a man decent with the broad brush, but lacking on detail in some quarters: unfortunately, many reports on his leadership and his government in the months leading up to and during this pandemic have confirmed that idea in the public perception, and the Prime Minister has done nothing to allay those fears. A Sunday Times Article, titled the “Coronavirus: The 38 Days When Britain Sleepwalked into Disaster” opened the can. The Prime Minister was reportedly absent on a holiday for a fortnight in Early February as the COBRA Committee began to sit in emergency meetings on the Covid-19 Pandemic, leaving Matt Hancock (UK Health and Social Care Secretary) to chair them, only returning once, but for a Conservative Party fundraiser. To add some perspective, in the Foot and Mouth outbreak in the late 2000s, Prime Minister Gordon Brown chaired every single COBRA meeting – this in relation to a disease that wasn’t threatening to human life. The Prime Minister was thoroughly denuded of his much credibility throughout the rest of that article, and this not exactly from a bastion of United Kingdom Socialist Media – the Times being as it is a predominantly Tory-leaning paper, and this placed his party in a precipitous position. The Coronavirus has been slowly eating away at the Tory Party’s national credibility – as epitomised in the national polling, the party squandering a 12-point lead in December, extending into January, to just a 4-point lead at the last poll average which I saw. The Government has also been lambasted for its muddled messaging on the way out of lockdown, with a hawkish and effective Leader of the Opposition making his way to the dispatch box in the Commons at just the wrong time for the PM.
When you add to the mounting and very present debacle of the Coronavirus Crisis the spectre of Dominic Cummings, things get even murkier. Dominic Cummings is less divisive than the PM, if only by merit of the fact that he is slowly becoming almost universally disliked in the nation. Already seen as a shadowy figure behind the scenes in Number 10, the spin-master in Chief of Vote Leave and now the Conservative Party Election Machine was an early target for criticism within the Boris Johnson Government. This task – that of criticising and lambasting Cummings – was made infinitely easier by the beleaguered advisor’s 260-mile trip to Durham in the height of the Coronavirus pandemic, and then trip to Barnard Castle to ‘test his eyesight’. Any other advisor would have been toast, but Cummings carried on, closely advising the PM, presumably advising his way through his own media storm, and even bagging a seat in the Rose Garden, albeit behind a rickety looking table, for a personal press conference (something Advisors are not supposed to get). Dominic Cummings stayed in his post, after all of this, and it festered within parts of the nation the oldest of arguments against the Tory Party: elitism. Several Senior Tories spoke out against the Prime Minister’s decision to retain Mr Cummings, he even lost a Junior Minister from his Cabinet about the issue, but he stayed on. The polling figures for the party and the PM personally took another major hit during this time. Labour had an open goal (they somehow contrived to nearly miss it but that’s another story) and Dominic Cummings wasn’t doing the job of a typical media advisor (but then Cummings is no typical advisor).
So, with Covid and Cummings dragging the PM down, he really didn’t need an additional deadweight to add to his sagging popularity and electoral fortunes – then came the care home crisis. Care homes have always been a politically contentious issue in the UK. If anyone seeks to mention reform, they had better be careful to have thought it through to the fullest extent. Most people accept that the social care system is imperfect, but not many people have the answers. This pandemic has exposed all the sharpest problems in the Care home system. 20,000 deaths in Care Homes since March have come as a result of Covid. The elderly voters which constitute the traditional Conservative Voter base have felt separated from the national arc of the nation together but apart, for some in care, it has felt like we are more separate than ever, no togetherness left. Some people of the more senior generation have felt thoroughly left behind and abandoned by this government – and they will vote with their feet on this Conservative Government if they feel pushed off by their party. Also, just yesterday, the PM managed to put his foot into another spectre of unpopularity – blaming the care homes themselves for the deaths, at least in part. When one is the head of the government, as President Harry S. Truman once attested with a desk sign, the buck stops here. It is unseemly for the PM to be seen to pass off the blame, especially on this particular issue, where the care home sector has more than just a moral leg to stand on when they complain that the government guidelines were not exactly the epitome of clarity. These 3 Cs are hanging around the Government’s neck already, waiting for the next campaign to drag them down. There is, however, one C that is yet to come, and could spell doom for the Prime Minister, Chancellor, and perhaps the government, in an altogether more swift manner.
Cuts. Political Kryptonite if done wrong, and potentially even if done right, so short-term focussed is the national consciousness sometimes. The Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has turned on the spending taps in recent times, but – in line with the Tory economic dogma which has dominated since the 2010 General Election – there must surely be some tightening of the belt if the Government is to maintain its image to the city, and to the voters which put them there. This job will fall to the Chancellor, as he makes his statement on Summer Financial Activities today, but the Prime Minister cannot escape the constraints on political manoeuvring caused by cuts. We have seen leaks of Whitehall papers suggesting that the Treasury will ask for 5% cuts across the board in all government departments, and this would potentially be damaging to the public faith in the government. Firstly, the public are tired of austerity. After 8 years, they were tired, so tired in fact that the then Prime Minister, Theresa May, announced an end to austerity. Any return to tax hikes and spending cuts in the manner brought about by the early Tory Governments would be very damaging to this government, which has fought so hard to be a different government to the governments which shape their party’s electoral history. Secondly, after so many years of austerity, the low hanging fruit is gone. Welfare reform has been sponged to the bone, other departments have been scrapped, scrimped and saved to the point of shortages – there is no ‘easy’ cut or saving left in the Treasury’s box of tools. And yet the Exchequer is constrained by the orthodoxy which has got them this far. The Cameron-Osborne Government made its name on economic austerity and orthodoxy and won the Conservatives back into power off the back of this orthodoxy, and as such government may find it harder to do a volte face in the upcoming spending review which it will inevitably have to launch. This is a tough call for any government, let alone one headed up by a PM who craves popularity and a Chancellor with limited ministerial experience.
All of this article, I have stayed very much on the negative side of this government – believe it or not they do have some things going for them, although I admit, not many. The government has faced this unprecedented circumstance, and still remains on top in the opinion polls, not by much, but they are on top. This is a remarkable achievement, despite their Prime Minister having subterranean poll figures, and could mean that all the party has to do to win the next election is to ditch the leader. We have seen recently how well the Labour poll figures have rebounded after Keir Starmer took over from Jeremy Corbyn, who is to say that the other could not happen to the Government polls? The other ace up their sleeve is the current Labour administration. Keir Starmer came to power with great acclaim and aplomb in April, but a sizeable chunk of his party are Corbynites, or Old Labour, and they do not like to just stay quiet and fall into line. If they think that Starmer could become another Blair, even if that leads to another Labour Government, they may kick up a fit and put the brakes on any Labour revival, remembering the old mantra: divided parties do not win. Finally, there is the great benefit of having so many ‘big beasts’ who could take the place of Boris Johnson, should he either resign, or be ignominiously be ousted. There is unity of purpose in the Tory party at present, even if not unity behind their leader, and therefore Johnson-moulded shape of this party looks certain to outlast the man himself. Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid and others are names which spring to mind as – internally at least – big hitters and potential future Prime Ministers should Boris be removed.
All of this means that, in the opinion of this author, the government is on the rocks. Whether or not it topples, that depends on the will of the people, and the actions of the government itself. These 4 Cs have transformed the Boris Johnson Government from one filled with glossy ‘new’ ideas for the nation, well presented, and dominant, into a shadow of its former self. The Government looks like it is in difficulty, no members more so than the Prime Minister and Health Secretary, but if I’ve seen any political figures of the time who could elude the seemingly inescapable calamities approaching this government – it is the present Prime Minister.
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