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15 November 2021

Martin Fletcher

Why Boris Johnson’s departure could make a Labour government even less likely

By replacing Johnson with the more popular and competent Rishi Sunak, the Tories could once more renew themselves.

For the first time I find myself daring to hope that the dark days of Boris Johnson’s premiership may be numbered.

The welter of sleaze allegations appear to have “cut through”, and political narratives – once they take root – are notoriously hard to change. Labour has moved ahead of the Conservatives in three polls (with a six-point lead in the latest ComRes survey) and 60 per cent of voters say the party appears “very sleazy and disreputable”. Johnson’s personal approval rating has plummeted to -27 (the lowest since he became Prime Minister). 

Tory backbenchers are angry, divided, demoralised and fed up with being treated as cannon fodder by No 10. Conservative newspapers, led by the Daily Mail, have finally rounded on the government (while Charles Moore, the former Telegraph editor, prolific columnist and Owen Paterson apologist, who helped persuade Johnson to protect the MP, has fallen strangely silent).

The Tories’ new “Red Wall” voters are likely starting to realise that Johnson’s self-styled “people’s government” cares much more about rewarding its wealthy metropolitan cronies with lucrative contracts, jobs and peerages, than it does about helping them. It must also be dawning on them that, with inflation, taxes and interest rates all rising sharply, the sunlit uplands they were promised remain a mirage on some distant horizon.

All this will challenge even Johnson’s phenomenal ability to ride out storms and bounce back. His relationship with his parliamentary party has always been transactional. Tory MPs have never liked him. They knew he was deeply flawed when they chose him to replace the hapless Theresa May in 2019, but they were desperate and rightly realised that he represented their best chance of holding their seats. Most still feel no great loyalty to, or affection for, the man, and will doubtless dump him the moment they cease to regard him as an election winner.

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That moment could just conceivably be approaching, but any rejoicing in progressive circles would be dangerously premature. Indeed, it could be wildly misplaced. Perversely, Johnson’s departure could make a Labour government much less likely, not more.

The first cause for caution is that the Tories’ fall from grace has not been accompanied by any major surge in support for Labour. The party’s average poll rating remains just 36 per cent, and it has yet to regain the public’s trust after the disastrous years of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It has yet to produce a compelling vision for the rebuilding and regeneration of our fractured country. It inspires no obvious enthusiasm or excitement, and its leadership refuses to consider its one plausible route back to power – some form of electoral pact with the other progressive parties.

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It is surely remarkable that even in the middle of a deep and protracted sleaze scandal, Keir Starmer, a former director of public prosecutions of unimpeachable honesty and integrity, has failed to overtake Johnson on the question of who would make the best prime minister.

The second cause for caution is that the Conservatives would most likely replace Johnson with Rishi Sunak. The young, personable Chancellor of the Exchequer was the first choice of 31 per cent of Tory members in a recent survey conducted by the ConservativeHome website, while Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, came a distant second with just 12 per cent.

Whatever you think of Sunak’s views, it would be churlish to deny that he is an astute politician and would make a formidable adversary. He is clever, industrious, disciplined and media-savvy. He earned praise for his handling of the economy during the unprecedented national emergency that was the Covid pandemic. The grandson of immigrants, he has a compelling backstory and wholesome family life. His immense wealth would appear to make him incorruptible without giving him obvious airs and graces.

More than that, Sunak could plausibly present his government as a clean break with Johnson’s, just as Johnson managed to present his as a clean break with the nine years of Conservative rule that preceded it.

Though a senior member of the cabinet for nearly two years, the Chancellor has managed to remain largely untainted by the Prime Minister’s most egregious excesses – subtly distancing himself from Johnson without being overtly disloyal. He supported Brexit not for unsavoury jingoistic or xenophobic reasons, but because he thought it would render the UK more nimble in a rapidly changing world. 

As prime minister, he could seek to portray himself as a more orthodox Conservative by restoring talented Remainers to the ministerial fold in place of Johnson’s Brexiteer mediocrities, eschewing his predecessor’s culture wars and cynical politics of division, and setting out to rebuild his party’s reputation for fiscal and moral rectitude. It is hard to believe that he would knowingly break the law, or renege on international treaties, or not seek to improve Britain’s tattered relations with Brussels.

In short, Sunak could well win back millions of disaffected Tory moderates and centrist voters who have been repelled by Johnson’s thoroughly rotten, inept and destructive government, but who remain unconvinced that Labour is ready to govern. He could well lead the Conservatives to a fifth consecutive general election victory, in which case it would be Starmer – decent but dull – who loses his job.

[See also: Want to know who the real metropolitan elite are? Look at the Tory sleaze row]

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