Dead man walking

Boris Johnson is fatally wounded, but can Keir Starmer capitalise on this golden opportunity, asks Mike Phipps

Over 40% of Conservative MPs voted to get rid of Boris Johnson on Monday – a far bigger percentage than voted to oust his predecessor Theresa May. She fell within the year.

All but his most ardent supporters recognise the damage done. The prime minister effectively no longer has the support of Parliament. His political survival may be a matter of months. Former leader William Hague has suggested Johnson should quit now.

The narrow margin of Johnson’s win is all the more startling when one takes into account the pressure applied by Tory whips. Rumours of promotion for wavering MPs abounded. More insidious was the open deployment of pork-barrel politics – some might say bribery – to get MPs onside. Bob Seely, the MP for the Isle of Wight, admitted he decided to back Johnson after securing a review into the funding package for his local council.

Collectively responsible

The failure to remove Johnson means that Tory MPs as a whole are now collectively responsible for his failings. They will be punished for their self-interest by the voters. This is not Labour hubris, but the conclusions of a leaked Conservative memo. It states:

“The booing of Boris Johnson at the Jubilee Thanksgiving service tells us nothing that data does not. There is no social group that trusts him, with even 55 per cent of current Conservatives calling him untrustworthy, against only 25 per cent saying he is trustworthy.”

“If left in post, will lead the Party to a substantial defeat in 2024. He will lose Red Wall seats (with majorities under 10,000) to Labour, and Blue Wall seats (majorities up to 20,000) to the Liberal Democrats.

“At least 160 MPs are at risk (all majorities under 10k, and LD-facing majorities under 20k). Furthermore, tactical voting, so devastating in 1997, is returning and could turn a defeat into a landslide.”

This all rings true. The problem for the Tories is that it’s unclear whether a change of leader would improve their fortunes. Johnson has transformed his party into a narrow intolerant populist rump. The vote to keep him as leader underlines the immorality and unfitness for office of this outfit.

Unable to change their leader and unable to unite behind him, Conservative MPs are now tearing lumps out of each other. One ally of Johnson was reported to have said his colleagues were “lying snakes” while another strong supporter said he could “throttle” dissident Tory MPs.

More damaging was the readiness of Johnson loyalists to slate their opponents’ performance in government. William Rees-Mogg accused former energy minister Jesse Norman of not developing a “proper energy plan”.  Nadine Dorries accused former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt of “inadequate” preparation for the Covid pandemic. It will be difficult for the Tories to brag about their record in office at a future election when their own MPs are now traducing it.

On the day of the confidence vote, the government’s anti-corruption champion resigned, saying that Johnson was guilty of a breach of the ministerial code which means he should resign too. The investigation into this by a senior parliamentary committee is likely to keep ‘Partygate’ in the headlines for months.

Good news for Starmer?

All of this should be good news for Keir Starmer, who has focused his attacks on Johnson’s integrity and lack of fitness for office, rather than on Tory policy failings. Johnson’s exit would have put an end to that strategy. His remaining in office allows the Labour leader to continue with his approach.

Yet there are dangers with this. While Labour have pulled ahead in the polls and Starmer is seen by a majority as better prime ministerial material than Johnson, the Party does not seem to be the main beneficiary of the government’s implosion, if last month’s local election results are any indication.

Labour made a net gain of just 108 seats, fewer than half the tally achieved by the Liberal Democrats. Significantly, 66 of Labour’s gains – a majority – were in Wales, where under Labour’s First Minister Mark Drakeford, the Party has a far more radical brand.

Why can’t Labour capitalise on the government’s crisis? While it might take some credit for exposing the government’s ethical shortcomings, as one analyst points out: “None of this was foisted on the Tories by Labour making the political weather.”

Many voters are unclear what Starmer stands for – if anything. “The cost of living is about to shape our politics in a way that it hasn’t for decades,” wrote Aditya Chakrabortty in the Guardian in January, adding: “But if Starmer wants to capitalise on this moment, he needs to do far better than make nothingy speeches larded with abstract nouns and bedecked with flags.”

When Starmer stood to be Labour leader in 2020, he declared that the policies of Labour’s popular 2017 manifesto would be the foundation of his approach. Since then, he has ruled out a public ownership and is now thought to be poised to drop another of his ten pledges – the commitment to raise income tax for those earning over £80.000. This is despite the continued popularity of these policies.  That’s contradictory for a leader whose political instincts seem to be largely shaped by electoral expediency.

Starmer is also at loggerheads with many Party activists, whom he sorely needs to help win elections on the ground. The National Executive Committee has proscribed several groupings and officials are expelling members who had connections to them long before they were banned – former parliamentary candidate Pamela Fitzpatrick was “auto-excluded” for giving an interview to Socialist Appeal when she was running to be the Party’s General Secretary – as well as suspending members over years-old social media posts. Other activists on the left have been removed as party candidates in local elections on spurious grounds. Regional conferences have been manipulated and the Party’s industrial wing held at arm’s length.

Such manoeuvres are demoralising: perhaps they are intended to be. Ahead of the Wakefield by-election, the entire 16-strong executive of the local Party resigned their positions after the national Party produced a shortlist that excluded any local input – in breach of a rule passed at Labour’s 2021 Conference. A similar refusal to heed local activist opinion in Hartlepool last year led to a catastrophic defeat.

An open wound

Above all, Starmer’s refusal to restore the parliamentary whip to Jeremy Corbyn remains an open wound in the Party. Worse, he seems to be finding other reasons for Corbyn’s continued exile, including his long association with the Stop the War Coalition, which is in conflict, Starmer announced recently, with “our unshakable support for Nato.”

As Starmer has shifted away from his promise to continue the popular policies of Corbynism and provide a leadership that could unite the Party – it clearly hasn’t – tens of thousands of members have quit. Many feel Starmer is an unprincipled man, an untrustworthy politician. Discussing Starmer’s retreat from the pledges he made, when he ran for the Labour leadership two years ago, Owen Jones asked recently: “If you care about Johnson’s dishonesty but dismiss Starmer’s, then do you really care about dishonesty at all?”

Being a left activist in the Party today is a lot more challenging than it was three years ago, but that is one of the consequences of a major defeat. Labour’s 2019 electoral rout was inevitably going to produce a counter-offensive by the Party’s right, who are using Starmer’s leadership to make sweeping changes, regardless of the internal damage – and possibly at the expense of winning the next election, which some may have written off already.

Yet the picture is contradictory. One reason why the left is under such unprecedented attack is that it is a lot more influential than a generation ago, when Tony Blair could largely ignore it. Today the left sets the Party’s policy agenda, with radical proposals passed by substantial majorities at its Conference last year. Left slates for leadership elections continue to do well –so much so, that the Party bureaucracy has changed the election rules and resorted to other manoeuvres to attempt to minimise the left’s impact.

The left is also making headway in local government. Momentum estimate that over 100 genuinely socialist Labour councillors were elected in May’s local elections. This matters. Poor performances by Labour local authorities was a central reason why Labour lost seats in its heartlands in 2019.

Equally, new approaches, like the ‘Preston model’ of community wealth building, prefigure what a future Labour government might achieve. North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll pointed out in a recent interview that he was “ten years ahead of the government on job creation targets.” Starmer could champion these initiatives, making a positive case for a Labour government, rather than just lamenting the Tories’ viciousness and incompetence. Why doesn’t he?

The fight inside the Party for policies that can meet these challenges is far from over. The internal regime that regards many local activists as a nuisance will not endure forever. If Starmer is able to win the next election, many members may forgive him for his unwelcome authoritarianism. But if he fails to beat a fatally wounded Tory leader – a dead man walking – it will be partly because he disowned the pledges on which he won him the Labour leadership – and there will need to be a fundamental accounting of how a golden opportunity was squandered.

Mike Phipps’ book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018. His new book Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow: The Labour Party after Jeremy Corbyn (OR Books, 2022) can be ordered here.

Image: Caricature of Boris Johnson. Source: Boris Johnson – Caricature. Author: DonkeyHotey,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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