By voting to retain Boris Johnson as prime minister, Conservative MPs condemned the country to further drift and decline.
On 13 June the British economy was revealed to be on the verge of recession, having contracted by 0.3 per cent in April. Average real wages are falling at the fastest rate for nearly two decades and remain below their pre-2008 level. As Duncan Weldon writes in this week’s cover story on page 18, the UK is once again the “sick man of Europe”. Of the G20 countries, only Russia is forecast by the OECD to record lower economic growth next year. But beyond bluster about “cutting red tape” and other free-market clichés, Mr Johnson’s government lacks any obvious strategy to change this.
Indeed, by publishing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill on 13 June, ministers threaten to worsen the economic climate through a trade war with the EU. Mr Johnson may inveigh against the new sea border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, but he has only one person to blame: himself. By rejecting alternatives, such as the UK remaining in the EU customs union, the Prime Minister guaranteed new checks even as he denied they would be required. Far from boosting the reputation of “Global Britain” (always a fantasy), Mr Johnson has sullied it by disregarding international law.
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The day after the bill was published, the government’s absurd and immoral policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda unravelled as legal challenges prevented a flight from departing. Confronted by Mr Johnson’s shameless populism, traditional conservatives from Church of England bishops to the heir to the throne are moved to outrage.
On 23 June voters will get the chance to respond in two parliamentary by-elections. Both contests were triggered in ignominious circumstances. Imran Ahmad Khan, the former Conservative MP for Wakefield, was convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy. Neil Parish, the former Tory MP for Tiverton and Honiton, resigned after being caught watching pornography in the House of Commons chamber (having insisted that he was searching online for pictures of tractors). Such is the “party of law and order”.
The by-elections are not just a chance for the people of Wakefield and Tiverton to register their outrage at their former representatives. They are a chance to send a message to the sycophants and enablers who sustain Mr Johnson in power. Should the Conservatives lose Wakefield, a Red Wall seat won from Labour in 2019, and Tiverton, a Blue Wall seat that has voted Tory since its creation in 1997, the Prime Minister may face a renewed MPs’ revolt.
But to defeat the Conservatives, anti-Johnson voters will need to work together. In Wakefield they should support Labour (which finished a close second to the Tories in 2019). In Tiverton, where the Conservatives have an outsize majority of 24,239, they should support the Liberal Democrats.
For decades, Labour leaders have wrestled with the “progressive dilemma”: the division of the centre left across multiple parties. But there is a partial answer: tactical voting. There is no need yet for a formal pact or alliance provided voters back the most viable anti-Conservative candidate in each seat.
As the Lib Dem leader Ed Davey remarks pragmatically in his interview with our business editor Will Dunn on page 22, “We’ll take on Labour where we think we can win.” Arithmetic makes an informal “progressive alliance” inevitable: almost all of Labour and the Lib Dems’ target seats are held by the Conservatives. As Mr Davey suggests, “rational parties” will focus their resources on those constituencies where they are strongest (not a single member of Labour’s shadow cabinet has visited Tiverton).
Although Labour and the Lib Dems are routinely cast as rivals, their fortunes are often aligned. From 1997 onwards, tactical voting ensured the Tories failed to win more than 200 seats at three consecutive general elections and delivered a hung parliament in 2010.
Should Mr Johnson survive until the next general election (as he well might), he deserves to be met by an alliance of unprecedented force. This is no time for the narcissism of small differences. Socialists, liberals, greens and independent Tories must unite in a common endeavour: the defence of the democracy that Mr Johnson has so debased.
[See also: Leader: Beyond the cynicism of Boris Johnson]
This article appears in the 15 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Big Slow Down