The resignation of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon today took many by surprise. Her leadership of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Scotland since 2014 has seen support for her party, and the cause of independence, increase significantly. Whilst recent controversies have dented her support, were an election held tomorrow the SNP would be re-elected to Holyrood and would win the most Scottish Seats in a Westminster election.
Much like the recent resignation of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Sturgeon’s resignation comes after many years of hate and vitriol from political opponents. This was alluded to in her resignation announcement:
The First Minister is never off duty, particularly in this day and age. There is virtually no privacy. Even ordinary stuff that most people take for granted, like going for a coffee with friends or for a walk on your own becomes very difficult. And the nature and form of modern political discourse means that there is a much greater intensity – dare I say it? – brutality to life as a politician than in years gone by. All in all, and actually for a long time without being apparent, it takes its toll on you and on those around you. And if that is true in the best of times, it has been more so in recent years. Leading this country through the Covid pandemic is by far the toughest thing I’ve done. It may well be the toughest thing I ever do. I certainly hope so. Now by no stretch of the imagination was my job the hardest in the country during that time. But the weight of responsibility was immense, and it’s only very recently, I think, that I’ve started to comprehend, let alone process, the physical and mental impact of it on me.
The English press, and in particular the Tory Press, has run a concerted campaign of attacking Sturgeon and the SNP for years. Pro Conservative newspaper The Telegraph have predicted doom for the Scottish Independence movement many times. For example, former SNP leader Alex Salmond formed Alba and has even gone as far as to describe Scotland as a “failed state” under Sturgeon’s leadership.
Despite investigations of breaching the Ministerial Code, which Sturgeon was cleared of, many in the media talked up her imminent political demise prior to the 2021 Holyrood elections. Others claimed that if the SNP did not win an outright majority, it showed there was not really support for independence in Scotland. That the SNP and Scottish Greens, who also support independence, did gain a majority in the 2021 Scottish election is conveniently downplayed by much of the media, especially in England.
While Sturgeon’s strong leadership and vision have helped build support for Scottish Independence, the Conservative and Unionist Party’s arrogance and self-serving incompetence in government have greatly aided her in this. Under the Tories, many Scots have become convinced they would be better off leaving the United Kingdom.
Polls show varying levels of support for independence. Overall, support for independence is higher than in the 2014 referendum. Further, the SNP continue to dominate Scottish politics, and a new leader is unlikely to change this. Those who believe Sturgeon’s departure spells the end for the independence movement will likely soon be disappointed.
On October 25 2022 Rishi Sunak became the fifth leader of the Conservative Party since they came to power in 2010. Having lost the membership ballot in the summer, Tory MPs having seen the polls after the Mini Budget and facing the prospect of electoral annihilation, coalesced around Rishi Sunak and ensured he was the only person on the ballot. In short, MPs no longer trusted their party membership after the Liz Truss fiasco.
When a new Prime Minister comes in and appoints a new Cabinet it is referred to as a “new government.” This wears somewhat thin when many of the “new” Cabinet Ministers have served in previous governments, many only a few weeks earlier. The likes of Michael Gove, Dominic Raab or Penny Mordant have served under previous Prime Ministers pursuing the same Conservative Party policies in Government. The Conservative Party were elected in 2019 on a Manifesto that the public expect them to implement. The accumulative issues of the last 12 years or the last 12 months have not disappeared with a change at Number 10.
The Truss libertarian experiment, described by Paul Goodman editor at Conservative Home as the economic experiment, which blew the roof off the chemistry lab. The Conservatives, having learnt in 2017 that policies of austerity are electoral Kryptonite, now face the reality that small government libertarian policies much craved by many tory members, simply will not work. Sunak inherits a party bereft of ideas and vision and is now forced to increase taxes to pay down public debt and fund public services such as the NHS. Promises made in 2019 to cut taxes would have been difficult to implement before the pandemic, now they simply are not possible.
The longstanding problem with British politics, as other commentators have pointed out, there is an expectation of European levels of spending on public services, but a naive view that the country can also have American levels of taxation. This is a problem not just for the Conservative Government, but for the opposition who once in government will have the choice of increasing taxes or slashing public spending. My next blog post will address this issue further.
Brexit is adding to Britain’s economic woes. In 2021 the UK faced a 14% fall in trade with the EU. The new trade agreements have not offset this, with deals like the one signed with Singapore largely mirroring Singapore’s deal with the EU meaning no gain from leaving the single market. In the case of the Australian deal, the desire to quickly conclude negotiations resulted in terms less favourable to Britain. There is no appetite from any of the main political party’s to revisit the decision to leave the European Union and to date little evidence that another referendum would see a different outcome. However, this becomes an issue of economic management with many leading Conservative politicians having boasted that having left the EU, Britain could negotiate favourable trade deals with the rest of the world. There is little prospect of a Free Trade deal with the US and the geo-political situation means deals with China are also unlikely, and in both cases, it is unlikely any deal would be favourable to Britain. The Conservatives since 2016 have talked of the opportunities of Brexit, yet have delivered few. This may not be top of voters’ priorities right now, but certainly, for many businesses, including those who have supported and donated to the Tories in the past, this is a serious problem. This is not a problem Sunak or any Conservative leader is likely to fix without going back on earlier commitments and renegotiating terms with the EU.
The Conservative Party are the natural party of Government in Britain and is the most electorally successful party in Europe. One of their great strengths is internal unity and discipline, much more so than Labour who more often than not air their dirty laundry in public. In the last 18 months, internal infighting has dominated the Conservative Party and ground the government to a halt over the summer while they elected a new leader, only for the winner to resign and be replaced by the runner-up weeks later.
Sunak’s ascent to the top job has not reduced these internal divisions at all. The below tweet from former Minister and Conservative MP Nadine Dorries recently gives some idea of the simmering tensions within parliament:
The ‘Get Brexit Done’ coalition has fallen away with many former voters and supporters feeling disillusioned with the Tories’ performance in Government. Whereas in 2019, enough voters could get behind The Conservatives over Brexit, now there are fewer policies areas where the government have an advantage over the opposition. Attempts to attack Labour regarding recent union industrial actions have not landed so far. Many feel sympathy for striking nurses and feel health workers are not paid enough. Traditionally Rail workers get a bad rap for taking strike action without explaining their position to the public very well. RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch has been much stronger than his predecessors at making a case for his members. At the same time, with inflation above 10% many have sympathy with striking workers, and many more see the problem as poor economic management by the government even if they do not like unions going on strike. The current situation feels much more like the Ted Heath Conservative Government in 1973 than the Thatcher Government taking on the Miners Union a decade later.
It will be very difficult for the Conservative Party to win the next election. Certainly were an election held today the government will lose. But this is why there will be no election in 2023. In the best-case scenario, the economic situation is unlikely to improve until early 2024. Further to this, Sunak will want as much distance as possible from the Kwarteng Mini Budget, and this will take time. As well as an improved economy, the Tories will need to restore party unity both within their MPs and the broader party membership – who didn’t vote for Sunak.
A wedge issue, like Brexit, was in 2019, could help the Conservatives, but it is unclear what this would be. After 12 years in power, it is difficult to talk about ‘fixing the asylum system’ without it begging the question why haven’t you done so already? Slogans like a coalition of chaos about Labour and the SNP may have worked in 2015, but given the last year the Tories are in no position where they can accuse others of creating chaos. Certainly the 2017 slogan of strong and stable will not work again.
Despite everything that has happened, it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the British Conservative Party which has proven time and again to be an electoral force to be reckoned with. In England, where over 80% of British voters live, Tory is the default option in many parts of the country. The polarisation within Britain is high with tensions from the Brexit debate and ongoing calls for Scottish Independence still simmering. The Tories can certainly play these divisions to their advantage in the hope of winning support.
As the next post will discuss, Labour should be able to win the next election, but it is not a certainty yet. They have their own internal issues to resolve.
The premiership of Liz Truss will be remembered for many years to come. She will be remembered as being the shortest-serving former UK prime minister (for now), resigning after seven weeks. It will be remembered that only two days after going to Balmoral to meet the monarch, Queen Elizabeth II passed away having served 70 years on the throne, making Truss her 15th and final PM. People will also remember the Truss premiership for plunging already bad Conservative Party polling numbers down to record lows, giving the opposition Labour Party an unprecedented 30% lead. But the main thing her seven weeks as Prime Minister will be remembered for – destroying the longstanding myth that the Conservative Party are good at managing the economy.
As outlined in a post earlier this year in a global economic crisis, governments, in the short term at least, are limited in what they can do to remedy the situation. However, the one thing governments can certainly do is not make the situation worse. In this Liz Truss and former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng failed spectacularly.
The now infamous ‘mini budget’ or “Growth Plan” of 23 September 2022 caused the pound to hit an all-time low against the US dollar, and force the Bank of England to intervene to prevent chaotic drops in gilts prices from stinging pension funds and threatening financial stability. How on did the UK’s natural party of government, the party of sound money and fiscal responsibility manage to get it all so badly wrong? And so quickly?
Since 2008, as pointed out in my last blog post, right-of-centre governments have stepped back from full Thatcherite free market policies due to the fact that these policies directly resulted in the crisis of the last decade. Whilst free market and trickle-down economics may no longer be electorally viable, there remain many true believers in the small government crusade.
The decline and fall of Boris Johnson as PM was entirely of his own making and had been on the cards for some time. During the period, the disquiet within the Conservative Party was not so much over “Party-Gate” but the increase in taxes, namely National Insurance, to keep their manifesto commitment to fund social care, a policy area where previous governments have failed to grasp the nettle. Tory Party members were furious that a Conservative Government had raised taxes, and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak was in their eyes to blame. Enter Liz Truss.
Truss, on becoming Foreign Secretary in early 2022, began doing these strange photos where she was imitating former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. This Thatcher cosplay was matched by sound-bite rhetoric about free markets and individualism. This really played to the home crowd with supporters in the Tory Party claiming “in Liz we Truss.”
Warnings from former Chancellor Sunak that the programme announced by Liz Truss when running for leader would make the economic situation worse were ignored by the party membership. In Liz they Trussed, in early September she became Conservative Party leader and Prime Minister.
A decade before coming to power, a group of right-leaning Tory MPs authored a book titled Britannia Unchained, a treatise, arguing that Britain should adopt a different and radical approach to business and economics or risk “an inevitable slide into mediocrity.” These MPs belonged to the Conservative Party ‘Free Enterprise’ group and included Liz Truss and the person a decade later she was to appoint as Chancellor, Kwasi Kwarteng.
In a later attempt to shift the blame to former Prime Minister Liz Truss for what happened, claiming he warned her the government were moving too fast. Kwarteng has not yet apologised for his mini budget on 23 September or the catastrophic fallout. In fact, his frustration seems more with the fact that Truss ended up sacking him, not long before being forced to resign herself. The truth is, the throwing caution to the wind approach of slashing taxes, removing restrictions on banker bonuses, and slashing other regulations such as IR35 were all consistent with what he and Truss had argued in Britannia Unchained a decade earlier. And these ideas found favour with the Conservative Party membership – with the idealised view of Thatcher’s vision of small government, deregulation and low taxation. For the general public, this was not so much ‘Britannia Unchained’ as ‘Libertarians Unhinged.’
Where this mini-budget really hit the rocks, especially with the financial markets, was the unfunded tax cuts and spending increases. The Tories, having implemented austerity policies during their first term in office with the Lib Dems, found out the hard way that underfunding the Police or the NHS was simply not an option. The 2017 election where they lost their overall majority, and Corbyn’s Labour had an unexpected surge in support largely due to increased turnout by young voters, was largely due to an anti-austerity backlash. In Kwarteng’s mini-budget, the solution was that the government borrow to pay for tax cuts and spending increases. The former Chancellor argued that cutting taxes and red tape this would stimulate economic growth meaning the government would soon be able to repay the debt.
Many were surprised to see financial markets react to a right-wing Tory budget in this way. Threats of capital withdrawal and other measures are not uncommon when centre-left governments try to implement their agenda. Yet here we had a right-wing budget and the market responded badly. One issue was that Truss and Kwarteng completely ignored the Office for Budget Responsibility before preparing the mini-budget. This office was set up by former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, in response to his claims that Labour had acted financially irresponsibly when in power. This office was designed to be a check and balance for the left, yet it was the right who fell foul of it. One of Britain’s key selling points is that is a rules-based economy. By not consulting the OBR before the mini-budget, Truss and Kwarteng damaged Britain’s brand.
Cutting taxes at a time of high inflation is not a terribly smart move as it will drive up inflation further. Borrowing money to cut taxes and increase spending is what the Government in Greece did prior to the 2008 financial crash, with devastating consequences. Add both of these to a world economy struggling in the wake of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it is no surprise that the markets reacted as they did.
Within days, Truss was forced to sack Kwarteng and announce a U-turn on the mini-budget, to much tormenting that “the lady is for turning” with reference to Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote. Within 44 days of becoming Prime Minister, Truss announced her resignation, having days earlier replaced her friend Kwazi Kwarteng with Jeremy Hunt as Chancellor and almost all measures in the mini-budget had to be reversed.
It was would easy to blame Truss and Kwarteng for this specular failure. Many have cited her shocking performances in the media as why ultimately she resigned and question how someone got to the highest level of public office when so clearly unable to perform. Leadership qualities play a significant role, and in modern politics media presentation is critical. But this was not a problem of style and presentation alone, as abysmal as this was under the Truss premiership.
The initial reaction to the Mini Budget in September was very positive from many in the Conservative Party and their cheerleaders in the tabloid media.
For Tory Party members and Daily Mail readers, this was the budget they had been waiting for. Far from being a surprise, the mini-budget was implementing not just the promises of Truss’s leadership campaign, but the wishes of many rank-and-file Conservatives. After enduring Sunak’s National Insurance increase the free market wing of the party finally had their way, at last, a true Tory budget. Never mind Britannia Unchained, this was Conservative Party unleashed.
The ‘get Brexit done/anti-Jeremy Corbyn’ coalition that won the Conservatives the 2019 election now finds itself in tatters. Not only were so-called red wall voters from the North East of England put off by the return of trickle-down economics, but polls show that large swaths of traditionally Conservative voting south of England were also in despair. Within the Conservative Party, those who still subscribed to Edmund Burke’s view that no “generation should be arrogant enough as to only think of themselves” and that borrowing for tax cuts would harm future generations, found themselves in the minority. In fact, the enduring influence of one-nation conservatism made popular by Benjamin Disraeli, of pragmatism and paternalism was replaced with an unwavering belief in small government and the market.
That Conservative MPs managed to avoid another membership ballot and Rishi Sunak replacing Liz Trus is the topic of the next blog post. Needless to say Conservative MPs, many from Constituencies once considered save tory, are now terrified by recent polls. Allowing the party membership a say risked a further dose of trickle-down right-wing economics, making the Tories unelectable for a long time. It was the party members who supported Truss, while in the first round, only 50 backed Truss for leader, though other candidates who had MP backing early on also espoused not dissimilar economic views.
Some who supported Truss may now have reflected on what happened and perhaps realise that these policies not only do not work, but electorally they are poison. But many on the right will blame it on Truss, her leadership style and the speed with which she tried to implement the reforms. In many ways, the fact that the mini-budget changes were done quickly and communicated poorly was a good thing, as it meant these policies were reversed quickly. A more media-savvy and gradual implementation would have done more harm in the long term. It is no accident that since 2008, free market trickle-down economics has been out of fashion. The Truss premiership has been a timely reminder that these policies do not work and should not be tried again.
The demise of Boris Johnson’s premiership in 2022 was both a surprising political upset and entirely predictable at the same time.
It was a political upset when considering the large majority the Conservative Party won in 2019 under his leadership, the best result of any political party since Thatcher’s 1979 election victory. Yet, after months of reports about Party Gate and scandal after scandal involving both Boris Johnson and various other MPs, his eventual resignation in June 2022 became inevitable. Indeed back in February last year my blog post questioned how he was still in post and argued that his brand was damaged. Five months later, after yet another scandal involving Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher, he was forced to resign.
It is still too soon to say how history will judge Boris Johnson, not least because there is still the possibility that he may return as Tory Leader someday. Few can deny that his ascent to the role of Conservative Party Leader and Prime Minister in 2019 profoundly impacted British politics for many years to come. In 2019 I said that one of Boris’s strengths as a politician was that he could tap into people’s hopes and fears. He would have been a formidable Leader of the Opposition, and if the Conservative Party do not win the next election this theory may be put to the test.
Yet, Boris Johnson is a deeply flawed character whose political ambition has and continues to come first. What little political or policy conviction he held was primarily about staying on brand and winning votes. This in itself is not unusual and in modern politics, one can have quite a successful career by being transactional and self-promotional.
Boris Johnson was ultimately undone by both his own character flaws and by the direction of the Conservative Party, the latter being seriously out of touch with the mood of the British public.
Plenty has already been said about Johnson’s character flaws, which were well-known long before he became Prime Minister. For those who backed him, there was plenty of evidence that things would turn out as they did. The fact is that like Johnson, his backers promoted him for short-term gain. Specifically to break the political deadlock caused by Brexit and to win an election largely on that issue. It worked.
But the fixes the Johnson leadership provided, under the guidance of Dominic Cummins and others, were largely short-term. His oven-ready Brexit deal may have won the election in 2019, but has resulted in a long-term stand-off over the Northern Ireland Protocol causing ongoing problems. The bold assertion during his resignation speech that his government had fixed social care is simply not true, with the system overwhelmed and the system still facing serious workforce shortages and lacking proper integration with the NHS.
The three years of Johnson’s premiership will be largely remembered for the Government’s management of the coronavirus pandemic. As I have addressed in earlier posts, the Government failed in its response to the pandemic. Yes, the rollout of the vaccine was a success, in no small part because this task was administered by the NHS, one of the most trusted British institutions, rather than being contracted out to businesses with close association with the Conservative Party. Examples of favourable business deals, such as those given to Dido Harding or Michelle Mone, whose companies were awarded lucrative government contracts and failed miserably in delivering have left a sour taste in voters’ mouths.
This all happened under Johnson’s watch and he was simply not fit to lead the country during this crisis. But he did not act alone. It was a failure not only of the Conservative Government but also of the British state. The crisis highlighted the country was not prepared for a pandemic, and longstanding underfunding of the NHS made this much worse.
A month before Boris Johnson’s resignation at PM, I argued that during the current time when inflation has increased globally, national governments are limited by what they can do, in the short term at least. Incumbent governments of all political persuasions have struggled in the last year, so it is not surprising that the Conservative’s polling numbers have been poor during this crisis. But in the same way that the Tories blamed Labour’s spending levels for the 2008 financial crisis, despite strong evidence that this was not the case, they cannot now claim economic problems are beyond the control of the nation-state without looking like hypocrites. Again, the short-term electoral gain in 2010 has now made a rod for their backs a decade on.
Yet he retains core support within the Conservative Party, and with a group of Tory MPs. He also enjoys a surprising level of support still with the British public, though nowhere near the level he enjoyed in December 2019. His two months as caretaker Prime Minister in July and August 2022 during a cost of living crisis certainly did not help matters, where he partied in the Cotswalds and took holidays in Greece while many voters struggled to pay their bills. Meanwhile, the Tory Party spent the summer holding a leadership election, where, as the next post will discuss, the least competent candidate was elected by Tory members.
Boris Johnson believes that like his hero Winston Churchill, he can return to power one day. He probably believes that he fixed social care, did a good job during the pandemic and did a good job with his Brexit deal. Or he knows that if you repeat a lie often enough people start to believe it. When you have a legacy to protect and want a future in politics, you say what you need to say and do what you need to do. And the Tory Party? Would they put him in power again? If they thought it would increase their vote, yes they would. That he is not suitable or trustworthy is no matter, when the motivation is power at all costs.
Were Johnson to return as Tory Leader for the 2024 election, he would almost certainly lose. However, he may motivate a section of the Tory base and Brexit supporters, possibly mitigating the losses. On the other hand, this might spur on a wave of tactical voting by Labour, Lib-Dem and Green voters to punish the Tories for putting Johnson back after all that has happened.
It is risky to make predictions, but it is safe to assume we have not heard the last of Boris Johnson. And much like Berlusconi in Italy, the results will undoubtedly be bad both for politics and the country.
I answer the question posed in the title by returning to what I wrote on my blog when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019:
Make no mistake, Boris Johnson has talent. He knows how to make a stirring speech and can tap into people’s hopes and fears as a politician
My blog post written shortly after Johnson became UK Prime Minister
Now one might think being the Prime Ministers of the worlds fifth-largest economy requires a great deal more than this, and indeed it does. It requires a mixture of luck, animal cunning and being able to use both to maximum effect.
My last post in December outlined some of the issues the Conservative Government in the UK had been having in the latter half of 2021. Yet the position still seemed quite recoverable, indeed only a few months earlier, the former Red Wall constituency of Hartlepool had been won by the Conservatives. Local Elections in May 2021 also were very positive for the Tories. Things were bad by the end of 2021, very bad in fact, but it still did not seem fatal.
2022 was not the start of the year the government were hoping for. Despite repeated denials that there was party’s at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown, further evidence emerged that there were, including a photo showing the Prime Minister with staff sitting in the garden at 10 Downing Street having “a work meeting” where there was wine and cheese in May 2020, when social gatherings were illegal in the UK. This was at a time when people could not visit dying loved ones and the public were told not to socialise in this way.
The investigation by Civil Servant Sue Gray found that there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office” in allowing these events to occur, and then a number of these events are now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. None of this was made better by the Prime Minister’s response that nobody had warned him that these parties were against the rules, rules that he had announced as Prime Minister in March 2020.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has said that Johnson broke the rules by holding these parties and believes he should resign. Others close to the Conservative Party including financial donors have also called on him to go.
As Conservative polling takes a hit and MPs get increasingly restless, it is still a surprise to many that Johnson stays on. Indeed most other PM’s would have resigned by now. So why does Boris Johnson stay on and why do the Conservatives let him. For Johnson, he knows if he leaves office now, he’ll likely never return. Having only served in the role just over two and a half years and most of that time leading (badly) during a pandemic, he has to try and stay on. But why on earth do the Conservative Party let him? Because despite everything, including the quite serious long term damage to the reputation of the party and indeed of the United Kingdom, he is probably still their best chance of winning an election.
Boris Johnson does not play by the normal political rules. Many claim Johnson uses the Trump playbook, and his election outcome in 2019 certainly benefited from Trump’s intervention which helped get the Brexit Party not to stand against the Conservatives in crucial leave voting constituencies, specifically the so-called Red-Wall. Yet Johnson plays by his own rules, which include fast and loose morals, including talk of beating up journalists. He has a level of confidence that has helped him get away with things other politicians simply would not. His clown reputation and building the brand “Boris”, the clown who got stuck on a zip wire at the 2012 London Olympics during his time as Mayor.
Johnson won the London Mayoralty by seeing an opportunity, specifically that London voters were tired of Ken Livingston. Further, the clown reputation meant Johnson’s opponents underestimated him in not just one but two London Government elections.
His ascent to the Conservative leadership was far from smooth, with his first attempt in 2016 being undermined by Michael Gove. His record as Foreign Secretary was also far from successful, especially regarding the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe issue. Yet his stance on Brexit, specifically undermining Theresa May’s attempts to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, paid off.
He proved ruthless in his first few weeks as the leader, withdrawing the Tory whip from 21 MP Conservative MPs who would not back his Brexit plan, including his own brother. His decision to prorogue parliament when he could not get MPs to agree to a general election ultimately worked for him. Despite losing legal challenges to this prorogation, eventually, he got MPs to agree to an early election, winning the best result for the Conservative Party since 1983.
His victory in 2019 was due to two things, tapping into the hopes and fears of those frustrated by attempts to thwart Brexit and a deeply divided opposition. His performances as an orator during this campaign were far from his best work, and despite arguable receiving fairly favourable press coverage during the campaign, felt the need to hide in a fridge to avoid doing a media interview days before the election. Those who in recent weeks, having previously supported Boris Johnson, now believe he is not fit to be prime minister seem to have only just worked out what he is really like when the signs have been there from the start.
One of Johnson’s strengths throughout his career has been his ability to bring people in that can carry him. Dominic Cummings, loathsome as many may find him, was a driving force behind the Brexit campaign in 2016 and the 2019 Conservative election victory. There were of course plenty of others, including some who have been with him since he was mayor of London who has recently quit. The problem with being an advisor or a ‘back roomer’, is that ultimately the candidate will not always do what you wish they would. It is immensely frustrating to feel you are the brain behind the power, yet never to get credit, and worse to have your clever strategy ignored.
The other issue Johnson faces is that despite his show of strength, for better or for worse, in getting Brexit done, he is not ideologically in step with much of the traditional Tory base. This in part explains his appeal to voters who traditionally have not voted Tory, certainly, this proved the case both in London and in the 2019 election. For many Conservatives, winning a strong majority and remaining in power was worth the compromise, even if it meant accepting a level of what the late Margaret Thatcher would have decried as corporatist policy. The recent decision to increase National Insurance has certainly tested the tolerance of many Conservatives who subscribe to the Thatcherite philosophy of low taxation and small government.
As I have written earlier, social care has been a blight on the political landscape and one that neither Labour nor Conservative governments have adequately addressed. With demand for social care increasing, governments have been under pressure to increase funding. Both Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s Conservative Governments lacked the political courage to increase taxes to pay for social care. Whilst there are strong arguments against the way the government have decided to increase taxes, specifically that rather than an across the board increase to National Insurance there were other options whereby the heaviest burden would have fallen on those best placed to contribute, nonetheless, an increase in taxation to pay for social care was inevitable. Any serious analysis of relying on the private sector and savings to address this need show this is not viable.
Is it a coincidence that the announcement of the National Insurance increase in September 2021 happened just before the government and in particular Boris Johnson started having problems? It would be a mistake to think that the open civil war within the Conservatives under Theresa May was only about Brexit or that the 2019 election result put these to bed. It is quite clear that the stories of lockdown parties and other scandals have been disclosed by people within the government. Plenty of Tory MPs would be quite happy to see Johnson fall or to apply maximum pressure on him so he backs down on the National Insurance increase. Boris Johnson may not be a Thatcherite ideologically, but so far it does seem he is not for turning and understands that doing so would ultimately be more harmful.
For small-government laissez-faire Tories, a leadership challenge may not serve them well. Were Johnson to go, the likely successor would be Rushi Sunak who talks free market but in practice has been one of the most interventionist Chancellors in modern times during the COVID-19 crisis. It is unlikely that Sunak as PM would reverse the National Insurance increase, given he has been its main advocate thus far. The rights favoured candidate, Liz Truss, is simply not credible.
Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He does so, for now, due to the lack of a strong viable alternative within the Conservatives. Despite everything, he is still the leader most likely to help the party regain support, despite him now being severely damaged. Some in the Conservatives may be thinking it best to leave him in place at a time when the cost of living is increasing significantly when the May Council elections will likely not be good for the Conservatives (the particular boroughs having elections this year are less favourable to the Tories, but a backlash to “party gate” will likely play a role) and the National Insurance increase. Better to find a new leader nearer to the election. But this is a risky strategy, as the Prime Minister has damaged not just his reputation, but that of the Conservatives and the government he leads. His attempts at statesmanship during the Ukraine crisis may have helped him a little, but his reputation on the global stage is also tarnished by what has happened at home.
Boris Johnson, should not on balance still be Prime Minister and in the long term, the Conservatives risk being severely punished for not removing him. But despite everything, he remains in post and still, we cannot write him off.
I think on this day I should just really repeat that I am deeply sorry for every life that has been lost and of course as I was prime minister, I take full responsibility for everything that the government has done. We did everything we could to minimise suffering and minimise the loss of life and will continue to do so.
Boris Johnson addressing the nation Tuesday 26 January 2021
Back in May 2020, I wrote a blog which listed the many failings of the UK Governments handling of the crisis. The Prime Minister and his colleagues ignored scientific advise and allowed the virus to take hold throughout the population in February and March 2020. The Prime Minister, in particular, took pride in the fact that he planned to keep the country open even when most other European nations were going into lockdown. It was only when NHS hospitals were near breaking point that Britain followed other nations and implemented similar restrictions.
Probably the greatest failing by the Conservative Government in the fight against COVID-19 was not its response to the crisis but the decade of underinvestment in the country’s public health system. Sir Michael Marmot from the UK Institute of Health Equity published a damning report in December 2020 which highlighted that during the last decade of Conservative Government:
people can expect to spend more of their lives in poor health
improvements to life expectancy have stalled, and declined for the poorest 10% of women
the health gap has grown between wealthy and deprived areas
place matters – living in a deprived area of the North East is worse for your health than living in a similarly deprived area in London, to the extent that life expectancy is nearly five years less.
The report also made clear that the above trends, in particular the health gap between wealthy and deprived areas, corresponds with data during the COVID-19 pandemic which found those from poorer parts of the UK were hit harder by the virus.
In May 2020 I posted a blog about the state of UK Social Care where for decades successive governments have failed to resolve the funding crisis, or indeed to build proper links between the health and social care systems. In October 2020 Amnesty International published its report As if Expendable which outlined how many older people were kicked out of hospitals and placed back into residential care homes, without first even being tested for COVID-19. This shameful action, along with not supplying social care providers adequate supplies of PEE was responsible for many thousands of deaths. The Amnesty report highlights that the UK Governments treatment of people in the social care system during this time breached both domestic and international law:
The UK is a state party to international and regional human rights treaties which require it to protect and guarantee fundamental human rights relevant to the concerns addressed in this report, including notably, the right to life, the right to highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, the right to non-discrimination – including on the grounds of age, disability or health status – the right not to be subjected to inhuman or degrading treatment.
As if Expendable, Amnesty International report 2020
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has yet to atone for what happened during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in the social care sector. Whilst this was not just the fault of his government’s failure, his statement on Tuesday shows he still accepts no-fault and claims they did all they could to ‘minimise suffering’ and ‘loss of life’, a claim the Amnesty International report demonstrates is false.
On the issue of face masks, the UK Government lagged behind most many other nations, initially implying that these were not effective, only later to make them mandatory on public transport. The justification for this U-Turn is that by mid-2020 there was more scientific data, which is fine except many other nations applied this scientific advice much earlier. A Centres for Disease Control and Prevention paper published 2004 found that during the 2003 SARS outbreak that wearing a face mask frequently in public places, frequent hand washing, and disinfecting one’s living quarter were effective public health measures to reduce the risk for transmission. Nationalist Britain knows best self-confidence could well have been a factor in the UK Governments refusal to learn from international experience.
The failure to develop a functional track and trace system has led to one of the greatest policy failures that have contributed to England being in its third COVID-19 lockdown. Very few people would disagree that having schools closed and students having to learn remotely is negatively impacting on students. And most people can understand how difficult it is for any government to balance public health against long term educational outcomes. But when the Conservative-leaning paper The Telegraph runs the headline The biggest mystery in politics: why is Gavin Williamson still in a job? you know that the Education Secretary has performed poorly. The recent example where after Christmas schools reopened for one day in January before closing again due to high infection rates, despite the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) warning the UK Government on 22 December 2020 that with the new strain of COVID-19 leaving schools open was contributing to the rising infection rate. A poll conducted earlier this month found that 92% of teachers believe Gavin Williamson should resign as Education Secretary, which is hardly given surprising his abysmal performance in recent months.
Yet the blame for schools does not sit fully with the Government. Her Majesty’s loyal opposition can also take much of the blame for this fiasco. In April 2020, at the height of the first wave of coronavirus pandemic in the UK, newly elected Labour Party Opposition Leader Kier Starmer called on the Government to set out plans to end the lockdown. Starmer, former head of the Crown Prosecution Service and a QC would argue that he meant that there should be a plan which included contact tracing, social distancing guidelines and other measures to make it safe to reopen. But the optics of the call was pressuring the UK Government to lift restrictions and specifically calling on them to reopen schools. Unlike in a court of law, in politics, it is about the key message, not the detail buried on page 7 of the affidavit.
The Oppositions position on schools has been nearly as confusing and contradictory as the Governments. The Party, still recovering from its 2019 election loss (which I wrote several blogs about in early 2020), under a new leader was trying to rebrand, reposition and appeal to voters it had lost. This has not been helped by the internal factionalism (which I also blogged about in May 2020) and the party still not being clear where it sits politically and ideologically. In April 2020 shadow Education Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey’s position was that schools should reopen when safe, a position that was consistent with the education unions. Shortly after this Long-Bailey was replaced as Education Secretary by Kate Green, who has been clear that she wishes to distance Labour from the education unions in an attempt to present the party as more ‘moderate’.
Green and Starmer’s position throughout this has been motivated by a policy of triangulation and policy by focus group whereby they are appealing to middle-class parents who want their kids back at school. Like the Tories, Labour’s position has been motivated by politics, not science. That former Conservative Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt called for schools to close earlier this month before the opposition is telling. Meanwhile the leader of the opposition was being grilled by media for his confusing position. Many believe that Green was appointed due to her loyalty to Starmer just as Williamson has kept his role due to loyalty to Boris Johnson. One would be more concerned if either appointment were based on ability as this would say a great deal about the capability of the other 648 MPs in the Commons if these two are the best and brightest on offer for education.
The issue of schools reopening is a personal one for me. In my blog earlier this month, I told of how my partner who works as a secondary school teacher in London caught COVID-19 and how we both spend Christmas and New Year recovering from the illness. When Greenwich Council tried to close schools in the borough due to skyrocketing infection rates, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threatened legal action to keep the schools open. By this time, most schools in the area had a significant percentage of students sick, or in isolation having been in contact with someone infected. In many schools, pupils were sent home due to the number of teachers off sick with COVID-19. To argue that continuing with this situation is any better for secondary school students is nonsense.
Much of the concern over school closures is the impact on students’ grades. When the Government announced GCSE and A-level exams would be cancelled once again in 2021 this added to the anxiety. One of the issues here has been this Government’s shift towards having student grades mostly assessed through examinations. This style of assessment favours certain learners over others, as exams favour those with short term recall skills. Many other countries have moved away from a full examination model of assessment to a mix of exams and course work assignments during the year. But aside from implementing a poor education assessment model for students, the pandemic has highlighted the risk of placing so much emphasis on examinations as, if for whatever reason, these cannot go ahead, it becomes difficult to determine student grades. The UK Government’s position on education and assessment is blinkered and ideological, which has meant it struggled to come up with sensible pragmatic solutions to this problem during the crisis. Worse, the Education Secretary has demonstrated he lacks the intellectual rigour and leadership to address these issues.
A coherent and strong opposition would have easily made political mileage during this time, however to date, the opposition has opted for triangulation and timidity. The opposition MP who has made the clearest and most articulate statements regarding school closures during the pandemic has been Lisa Nandy the Shadow Foreign Secretary, who came a distant third in the 2020 UK Labour leadership contest. What Nandy had to say was hardly earth-shattering, merely that the Government needed to get testing and track and trace working properly before it would be safe to reopen schools. To be fair, Starmer, Green and Long-Bailey probably also thought they were saying the same thing, but what people heard was quite different.
Prime Minister Johnson’s non apology on Tuesday was an insult to the British public. Yes, this was a difficult crisis and all governments have made some mistakes at this time. But the UK has done particularly badly and the statement on Tuesday shows he has learnt nothing. The Conservatives won the 2019 election with the sizeable majority that they did largely due to Brexit (see my blog post immediately after the 2019 UK election) and divisions within the opposition. Boris Johnson is not a strong leader and in this crisis, he has proved to be woefully inept. It is well known that Johnson likes to compare himself to former Conservative Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in which case the COVID-19 pandemic has been his Gallipoli.
At a time when the country is in its third lockdown, when over 100,000 people have died, when the economy is in recession and the number of jobless is set to rise, few now are looking to the next election which will likely be held in 2024. Yet that still motivates leaders of the UK’s two main political parties. Polling numbers in recent months have been fairly close between Labour and the Conservatives. Where polling has been much more consistent is in Scotland, where the SNP maintain a strong lead heading into the Scottish Parliament’s election on 6 May 2021. Support for Scottish independence also maintains a strong lead and as I predicted in my blog post nearly a year ago this issue continuing to feature prominently on the political agenda, despite fierce opposition from political leaders in London. Without a doubt, independence campaigners in Scotland, as well as Northern Ireland and Wales, continue to win support for their independence calls on the back of the UK Governments inept handling of this crisis.
There is however hope on the horizon. The Governments rollout of the COVID-19 vaccinations will hopefully in time slow the movement of the virus to a point where current restrictions can be lifted. It is a wonder of modern science that within a year of COVID-19 emerging that scientists, including those at Oxford University, have developed a vaccination. Despite concern by some about the speed with which this has been released, the evidence so far is that widespread vaccination will stop the spread and save thousands of lives. Credit where credit is due, the UK Government have been quick off the mark to get this vaccine available to the most vulnerable with the aim of immunising as many people as possible over the next year. And to the oppositions credit, they have supported the Government on the vaccine rollout.
There is still a long way to go until this crisis ends and the Government have a lot to answer for badly mishandling things to date. The Prime Ministers apology on Tuesday did not cut the mustard and was an insult to the families of those who have died. Lessons from the mistakes over the last year need to be learnt and with this, the Prime Minister needs to cut the bombast and bravado and instead learn humility and humbleness. The successful rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine will be essential not only for ending the crisis but also for rebuilding trust in public trust British state after it has managed this pandemic so badly.