If Boris Johnson is drinking in the last chance saloon, Labour should get the round in

By David Osland

“One more strike and he’s out,” veteran Tory MP Sir Roger Gale told the prime minister. Boris Johnson is “drinking in the last chance saloon,” former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson warned.

The odds of a vacancy at 10 Downing Street have palpably fallen in the last week, with around 100 Conservative MPs rebelling over so-called ‘vaccine passports’, the Lib Dems scoring a spectacular by-election success, and Brexit chief Lord Frost quitting the cabinet with an outright attack on the man who elevated him to the peerage.

Meanwhile, Partygate has catalysed the perception of a government that is tawdry, heartless, dishonest, out of touch and even corrupt. Socialists who were around thirty-one years ago will see the obvious parallels.

It would be great to watch a Tarantino remake of the defenestration of Thatcher, with Lord Frost in the Sir Geoffrey Howe role and Heseltine perhaps played by Al Pacino in full-on psychotic gangster mode.

But don’t forget what happened two years later. The replacement of Johnson with Sunak, Truss or Gove will not necessarily help Labour victory at the next election, any more than did the replacement of Maggie with Major.

There is no indication that North Shropshire will prove a greater turning point than the Eastbourne by-election immediately prior to the ouster of Thatcher.

The seaside resort had also been true blue – with a brief four-year interlude after the Liberal landslide of 1906 – for over a century.

The circumstances of the vote taking place at all should logically have seen huge sympathy for the Conservative candidate. The previous Tory MP, strident rightwinger Ian Gow, had been killed after the Irish Republican Army left a bomb under his car.

Yet a 16,000 Tory majority evaporated, with Liberal Democrat David Bellotti emerging victorious and Labour losing its deposit.

The missing context in comparing then and now is the degree of community self-organisation against the poll tax, which gave a precise focus to popular anger.

Every locality had its own anti-poll tax union, with millions of people refusing to pay, either because they just couldn’t or they just wouldn’t. By March 1990, a riot had rocked Trafalgar Square.

That November, simmering Tory factionalism climaxed with a euphemistic House of Commons onslaught on Thatcher from Sir Geoffrey, a politician so mild-mannered that one Labour figure famously described his worst rhetorical sallies as akin to being savaged by a dead sheep.

You’d probably have to be a public school boy to appreciate the full force of similes about opening batsmen with broken bats, although the Freudian symbolism is glaring.

Not long afterwards, the Thatcher family were packing their bags, in what marked an iconic moment for her victims and her gainsayers alike.

Had Labour seized the moment; had Labour taken the momentum of the poll tax fight forward; had Labour offered radical policies to shake abstainers out of their ‘all politicians are the same’ torpor, the next election was there for the taking.

So, of course, Labour did none of those things.

The Tories triumphed in 1992 and governed for a further five years. Oh, and Bellotti lost his seat.

I don’t personally subscribe to the John the Baptist theory of Kinnockism: that he didn’t move the Labour Party far enough to the right but was rather sent to prepare the way of the Lord.

Nor do I believe that everything was hunky-dory until the Sheffield rally, when Kinnock was momentarily seized by the conviction of his rock n roll superstardom.

The truth is that a replacement face at the top can be as good as a factory settings reboot for the Tories, and Kinnock was clueless in the face of the tactic.

It’s not enough for the Leader of the Opposition gleefully to sit back and munch popcorn while cheering on the accompanying Olympics of auto-destruction.

Many commentators maintain that a poor performance at next May’s local elections will inevitably mean a leadership challenge for Johnson.

If it happens, Gove looks to me like damaged goods. But both Sunak and Truss can credibly present themselves to middle England as shiny happy people holding hands, and neither is likely to outdo Amy Winehouse in the party animal stakes.

The conclusion I would reach is that if Johnson really is drinking in the last chance saloon, Labour should get its round in.

Full support for unions in struggle, including UCU and RMT, and backed up by mass protests against NHS privatisation, would be a good start.

Just because we’re rerunning 1990, there’s no need to rerun 1992.

David Osland is a member of Hackney North & Stoke Newington CLP and a long-time left wing journalist and author. Follow him on Twitter at @David__Osland

Image: Boris Johnson. Source: https://securityconference.org/en/medialibrary/asset/boris-johnson-1851-17-02-2017/. Author: Kuhlmann /MSC,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Germany license.

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