The counter-revolution will be televised. As winter drifts into spring, Boris Johnson will confront Harriet Harman and the rest of the House of Commons Privileges Committee in full view of television cameras. Of the two right-wing threats to Rishi Sunak, this will be the one most covered and widely discussed in the media. But there’s another threat; and it’s bigger.
Johnson’s appearance in front of the committee – which was established to investigate whether he deliberately misled parliament over the lockdown parties held in No 10 – will be important and theatrical. Important because if the committee does not rule against him, he is far likelier to lead his supporters to topple the Prime Minister, particularly if there are ghastly local election results for the Tories in May. And they will be theatrical because anything involving Johnson must be.
The hearings – which reports suggest may take place within weeks – will be a civilised, deadly, elite joust. Johnson is using one of Britain’s most lauded barristers, the KC David Pannick to help him – though as NS readers may have noticed, the man himself can talk. Harman, Labour’s former deputy leader and the leader of the opposition during the summer of 2015 (as well as a KC), will present a contrast in style – punctilious, relentlessly polite, steely and no pushover. With both Sunak and Keir Starmer watching nervously, Harman may be, for a while, the most influential MP of all.
Harman will be driven by the evidence. That’s where this gets interesting. On his podcast, Partygate: The Inside Story, ITV’s Paul Brand has patiently published a shudder- and flinch-inducing account of what happened at the Downing Street parties. Civil servants are talking and writing. Evidence is piling into the committee in such a great quantity that it’s hard to order and sift through.
We don’t know yet how many people will give evidence openly under their own names, as that now means confronting “the boss” and being cross-examined, which won’t be fun; and how many accounts will remain anonymous scuttlebutt. Even so, some of Johnson’s natural supporters think the sheer weight of testimony – reminding the whole country of those undignified months – will finish off any chance of a comeback for him. He may agree. HarperCollins has just announced it has commissioned his memoir.
But so long as there is a possibility of a Johnson return to front-line politics, the press will be partisan, inflamed and overexcited. The question is the effect of the reheated psychodrama on wavering Tory voters, particularly in the “Red Wall”. MPs of both main parties who hold seats in those areas confirm Johnson retains unique name recognition and support among people not normally interested in politics. But to get to those voters, he has to get past the voters who are interested in politics and who do pay attention; and they are much less favourable.
[See also: Is Boris Johnson coming back?]
Then there’s the question of what a Johnson agenda actually means in 2023. Robustly supporting tax cuts and Ukraine in its war against Russia isn’t enough. Johnson deserves credit for being early in his support for Volodymyr Zelensky but that wasn’t a complicated call. Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin was festooned with banners reading, “We’re the bad guys.” The Ukrainian president was even dressed like a superhero. In the current economic circumstances, there’s zero chance of tax cuts: calling for them now is as relevant as demanding legislation for less rain.
As for the rest of the Sunak agenda, it’s hard to see an authentic Tory alternative: would the government “not-deal” with inflation? Pledge to treat the public finances frivolously? Settle with the Royal College of Nursing on its original pay demands? Send not a dozen but a hundred Challenger 2 tanks to Kyiv?
Yet the possibility of the Exile’s return, ousting Sunak and Jeremy Hunt, will throb through the months ahead, chewing through tweets, jokes, memes and hours of broadcast effort and acres of newsprint – and, oops, I seem to have used up several inches myself. Johnson could give a definitive denial. But, then again, who would believe him?
I began with the proposition that there is another right-wing revolt against Sunak that, though it doesn’t get much coverage yet, will matter more this year and next. That’s the advance of the Reform UK party, founded by Nigel Farage but now under the leadership of Richard Tice, a property developer and former Tory donor.
You would think that after Brexit – it was founded originally as the Brexit Party – it would have nothing much more to say. You would be wrong. Tice has developed a package of potentially popular policies around four areas, at least two of which he believes will be critical to the election: higher wages, the healthcare crisis, cheaper energy costs and the channel boat crossings. His policy on the last of these is brutal and will be seen by many as extreme: declare a national emergency, leave the European Convention of Human Rights, allow no resettlement of immigrants who have entered the country illegally, and “pick up and take back” to France people travelling on small boats.
But in the other areas, Tice has ideas the main parties may well end up trying to swipe. He would lift the starting point for income tax from £12,500 to £20,000, paid for by a squeeze on benefits. He argues that with 5.2 million people in the UK now on out-of-work benefits – a record high – it would be possible to get two million of them back to work at a time when, with his tax plan, the lowest paid would immediately be better off.
On the NHS, Tice would give all patient-facing staff – doctors, nurses, ambulance workers and the rest – three years of zero income tax. To bring in money Reform argues that the Bank of England should stop paying the banks interest on the quantitative easing (QE) debt it has issued; QE represents around 35 per cent of the national debt now, and should be translated into a long-term national bond.
If you are asking about the future of populist politics, it’s almost all here. And people are just starting to notice. Reform’s logo featured prominently at a strategy session for the next election in the Conservative central office recently. Launched under its current name in 2021, Reform is hitting nine points in recent polling. Tory strategists tell me that at ten points it would have a devastating effect on their fortunes. At a time when there is such right-wing disaffection with Downing Street, Reform has grown in three years to a position it took Ukip 19 years to reach (at the 2015 general election Ukip won nearly four million votes).
Reform, for reasons we can all guess, does not reveal overall membership numbers, yet the party claims that 600 new members joined in the 24 hours after Liz Truss appointed Jeremy Hunt as chancellor; and that some 9,000 people have joined since Truss self-detonated. Tice is a more affable, crisper and less divisive figure than Farage, who remains the honorary president of the party but more interested in his television career.
Tory high command is deeply worried about Reform UK under its new leader. It’s less that it will win seats (Tice will stand in Hartlepool) but more that it might let in Labour in some unlikely places. Labour MPs quietly concur. Reform has a list of 700 general election candidates, half of whom have been vetted. Tice is unworried about letting in Labour; he describes Starmer and Sunak as “Con-socialists”.
This may all be something or nothing. If tactical voting means the Liberal Democrats do better than current polling suggests, we could see a coalition after a 2024 election as well as the introduction of electoral reform. In those circumstances, Reform UK could be a key part of the collapse of historic Tory hegemony. I think that relying on the vivid Johnson drama for the next twist in the story of right-wing British politics might just mean everyone is looking in the wrong direction.
[See also: Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer still need to sell their visions to the public]
This article appears in the 18 Jan 2023 issue of the New Statesman, How to fix Britain’s public health crisis