The Tories will soon discover that their problems do not begin and end with Boris Johnson. Firstly, succession: who can they replace him with? There are no big-hitters. The pool of top Tory talent has shrivelled to a puddle.
According to polling of Tory members, the two candidates most likely to win a leadership race are Ben Wallace and Liz Truss. Forget Wallace. The Defence Secretary is popular with party members because he seems competent and is ex-military. But unlike Truss, he hasn’t been busy building support with MPs, has no clear political definition, and doesn’t appear to want the job. Truss has been campaigning for months. She is well-liked by Tory members – though hardly anyone else – because she is a traditional Thatcherite with a feel for the culture wars.
If Truss is elected, her chaotic leadership and unpopularity would quickly see Johnson rehabilitated in the same way that nostalgic liberals have redeemed Theresa May and George W Bush. She espouses middle-class rightist populism with none of Johnson’s crossover appeal. She is an adept culture warrior but has none of Johnson’s ability to charm audiences, manipulate journalists and outmanoeuvre rivals. To call her gaffe-prone would be like calling the Queen a royalist: she is the gaffe.
A parliamentary Conservative Party keen to shore up seats like North Shropshire and Tiverton and Honiton might be expected to narrow the field to a couple of safe technocrats acceptable to the membership. But who exactly are they? Rishi Sunak polls well with members, but his honeymoon with the electorate is over. His resignation letter suggests he would campaign on a Cameronite platform benefiting the City of London: austerity in an age of soaring costs of living. Besides, the parliamentary party is now more right-wing, chaos-addicted and susceptible to a nationalist base than it was when half of the party defied the leadership to campaign for Brexit. They’re not about to become managerial.
More fundamentally, the Tories haven’t found a solution to the problem that Johnson’s leadership was intended to resolve. No one voted for Johnson for his integrity and competence. He was a known quantity when he won the leadership, having served twice as the mayor of London before becoming the foreign secretary. As Douglas Murphy’s scabrous, muckraking book Nincompoopolis (2017) demonstrates, Johnson’s narcissism, laziness, cronyism, clientelism and thwarted authoritarianism were all present when he was mayor. But he had a proven ability to rally the core vote and charm non-Tory voters – helped by a small but influential liberal constituency whose hatred for the left (Ken Livingstone in 2008 and 2012, Jeremy Corbyn in 2019) overrode their aversion to the Tories.
These qualities made Johnson the Conservative choice in 2019. The same ruthless opportunism that helped him to survive serial Covid-19 debacles, screeching U-turns and scandals, and resist resigning for so long, also enabled him to smash the parliamentary deadlock over Brexit and prevent voters defecting to Ukip and the Brexit Party.
Nor are the scandals that have afflicted his government his alone. Partygate resulted in 83 people being fined, including Sunak. The Greensill Capital lobbying fiasco was visited on the government by David Cameron. The practice of handing out billions of pounds worth of public contracts to mates without competitive tendering, included a firm run by associates of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings. Johnson was accused of breaking the ministerial code, but so was Priti Patel. Johnson was accused of breaking electoral law over an apartment makeover funded by a Tory donor, but so was the party under Cameron in 2015. Some of the worst Covid disasters, such as the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, were Sunak initiatives, who also became a ringleader for lockdown sceptics in autumn 2020 when cases were soaring.
These scandals are in the nature of the party that Johnson took control of. As for the Tories’ electoral difficulties, they are real but shouldn’t be overstated. As the pollster John Curtice pointed out following the results in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton: “There were no less than ten by-elections in the 2010-15 parliament when Labour’s share of the vote rose by more than it did [in these by-elections] – yet the party still lost in 2015.” The dynamics of midterm by-elections are quite unlike those of a general election.
It is difficult to see anyone else doing much better. Whoever becomes leader will have to confront the same dilemma as Johnson. The Covid-19 pandemic eclipsed Brexit as the true libidinal cause. The Tories’ class coalition had almost fallen apart over Europe, as working-class conservatives and the “entrepreneurial sector” (medium-sized business owners, boutique investors, lone traders) had been defecting to Ukip for decades. It almost collapsed again in 2017 when May was unable to deliver Brexit. Johnson’s ruthlessness pulled it back together. The government has lost control of events. It has been forced to reveal unpopular instincts, such as the drive to suppress wage rises on the pretext of curbing inflation, while doing things it doesn’t want to, such as imposing a windfall tax on energy companies to mitigate the cost-of-living crisis.
The government has been able to impose some authoritarian legislation, such as the attack on protest rights and the human rights of travellers, the plans to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda, and the spycops bill that could be used to legalise torture and murder by undercover agents. But its big plan, announced with fanfare in 2019, was a complete reconstruction of state and economy, with a £100bn investment funded by borrowing. It was supposed to raise public spending to its highest levels in decades. That agenda is shipwrecked after the massive investments required to protect the economy during the pandemic.
In his resignation speech, Johnson referred to his parliamentary colleagues demanding his resignation as a “herd” following the “herd instinct”. He has a point. The logic of forcing Johnson’s resignation over bad polling and dismal media coverage, without any clear alternative in either policy or leadership terms, is intrinsically short-termist. It appears to be a decision driven by a mixture of panic, rivalry and competition for the top job. And one that will catalyse, rather than mitigate, their crisis.