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Boris Johnson’s resignation is a problem for Keir Starmer

His replacement will be a safer, more directionless, but less scandal-prone pair of hands – undoing Labour’s entire electoral strategy.

By Oliver Eagleton

On 6 July, as Tory cabinet ministers resigned en masse, Boris Johnson hinted he would call a snap election rather than step down. Since his mandate came from the public and not the back benches, Johnson suggested, he could plausibly consult the first and ignore the second. In this scenario, the Prime Minister would redeploy the winning tactics of 2019: positioning himself as the anti-establishment candidate, crushing dissent in his party, and running a bullish campaign that contrasted the priorities of the electorate with those of Westminster.

But it was not to be. The next day, Johnson acquiesced to “the herd” of Tory MPs and announced he would leave office once a new leader had been chosen. In one sense, this was merely a recognition of political reality, since Johnson knew he would struggle to stay in the post long enough to dissolve parliament. Yet the implausibility of a 2019 election rerun also reflects the historical shift that has occurred during his three-year tenure. The fact that Johnson resiled from this combative approach – declining to withdraw the whip from back-bench rebels or force a constitutional crisis – indicates a broader failure to sustain the populist energy that delivered his majority.

In 2019, Johnson’s appeal was generated by two imperatives: to enact Brexit and defeat Jeremy Corbyn. Despite his reputation for high verbiage, the PM’s populist platform was – initially, at least – based on these concrete pledges. For many first-time Tory voters, accusations that he was cynical or reckless or dishonest did not matter; what mattered was his ability to achieve practical results. So, in campaign mode, Johnson was effectively scandal-proof – unscathed by reports that his party had published disingenuous election material, rebranded its Twitter account as a bogus fact-checking service, and put the NHS up for sale to secure a US trade deal. Thanks partly to a compliant media, all this was seen as a distraction from more pressing matters.

In governing mode, however, Johnson gradually lost his immunity. With Brexit realised and Corbyn vanquished, the Tories’ populist makeover entered a new phase. It now rested on the nebulous plan to “level up”, which, along with a series of confected culture wars, would consolidate Conservative gains in the “rust belt” in the north of England. Touted as a policy to redress uneven development, levelling up was in fact a half-hearted attempt at clientelism: miserly handouts to blue constituencies that aimed to foster residents’ “pride in place” but provided scant financial stimulus. A more substantial programme was not only scuppered by the cabinet’s hard-line Thatcherites, it was also undermined by larger factors: soaring inflation, instability in the financial system, pandemic-hit growth rates. Real regionalism would have meant wage setting, price controls, coherent industrial strategy and progressive taxation – measures off-limits for any Tory leader, no matter how dirigista and state interventionist.

Unable to intervene effectively in this conjuncture, Johnson lost the sense of purpose that had defined his election campaign. Notwithstanding the ephemeral vaccine rollout, the PM could no longer claim a unique capacity to get things done. Invectives against “Tory drift” accordingly appeared in the Telegraph and Financial Times, with a commentator in the former lamenting that a “quasi-populist coalition unburdened by the dogmas and prejudices of the metropolitan Islington class” had been replaced by a politics of “muddling through”. It was at this point that Johnson’s scandals – a constant background thrum in his career – began to feel genuinely fatal. His standard line on partygate – that it was a diversion from “the issues people care about” – was particularly unconvincing amid a cost-of-living crisis in which he himself seemed diverted from the issues people care about.

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When Johnson’s premiership finally imploded over the Christopher Pincher affair, it was immediately clear how he would be remembered by the Tory faithful. Sajid Javid’s resignation letter thanked him for “seeing off the threat of Corbynism, and breaking the deadlock on Brexit” but said little about his wider project, except that it had “shone a very welcome light on the regional disparities in our country”. Johnson, the letter implied, was a useful politician but not a visionary one. Though he had resolved the immediate problems of 2019, his subsequent programme was a non-starter – which left the government with little ballast against its leader’s erratic personality.

One might think that a search would therefore be under way for a replacement with a more compelling vision. But if anything, the Tories are seeking the opposite: someone who will shelve populist fantasies for fiscal prudence while restoring the semblance of integrity to high office. Asked by the BBC what the party’s new direction would be, Daniel Finkelstein replied: “Trying to tell the truth, trying not to break the law, trying to have some sort of coherence between No 10 and No 11 Downing Street. Those are new directions in themselves.” After the damage wrought by austerity and the damp squib of levelling up, the next PM is expected to forego ambitious policies and focus on good governance. No grand designs are needed; just a safer pair of hands.

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There are several candidates in the upcoming leadership election who more or less meet this criterion: Javid, Rishi Sunak, Penny Mordaunt, Jeremy Hunt. Assuming one of them sweeps to victory, the political landscape will be reconfigured. Both major parties will be led by conservative, managerial types – proudly bereft of ideas – whose main function is to banish the memory of their populist predecessors. The centre will regroup, party politics will become more consensual. And if the new PM can stay scandal-free, then Keir Starmer’s electoral strategy – presenting himself as the law-abiding antidote to Tory sleaze – will come undone.   

But greater stability in Westminster may be offset by unrest outside it for as long as Tory economic policy continues on its directionless course. In March, James Meadway predicted in the New Left Review that a British gilets jaunes would erupt due to rising consumer prices. Now, fuel protesters are paralysing motorways across the country; thousands have joined demonstrations against unaffordable energy bills amid talk of a mass boycott; and workers from multiple sectors are preparing for strike action. As these movements gather strength, the next government will have them firmly in its sights. New anti-trade union laws and crackdowns on public protest will follow, while Starmer’s Labour sits on the sidelines. This is likely to be the basic tenor of the post-Johnson settlement: ramped-up repression without even the pretence of regional rebalancing. But that won’t bother many of those now cheering the incumbent’s exit – who, at the end of the day, will settle for someone more prime ministerial.

[See also: Keir Starmer’s big gamble pays off as he avoids a Durham police fine]