A day after Boris Johnson resigned as British prime minister but announced that he would remain as “caretaker prime minister” while the Conservative Party chose its new leader, the disgraced leader was hit with another scandal. Several media outlets reported that one of the reasons he wanted to stay in office for a few months was so that he could continue to have access to Chequers, the PM’s country residence, where he and his wife, who had gotten married during the COVID-19 lockdowns, were planning a belated wedding bash.
Others gleefully reported that any incoming resident to Number 10 Downing Street would, as a first order of business, have to replace the extraordinarily gaudy, and pricey, gold wallpaper and other baubles that the prime minister and his wife had ordered installed — using money donated by lobbyists — in their official residence.
Johnson’s tenure was defined by lawlessness and cronyism, dolled up by his carefully cultivated shambolic charisma and his ability to turn a phrase to his advantage. He was, as the Observer and Guardian columnist Andrew Rawnsley put it this weekend, a master of “verbal flatulence” void of any underlying philosophical principles. On Brexit, he talked a big talk of “getting the job done” and implemented changes that led to startlingly high inflation and low growth, to a damagingly weak currency, and to almost daily diplomatic spats with the EU. On “leveling up” the economy, he preached about the need to economically boost depressed areas of the country — yet, by the end of his tenure, inequality (including the geographic divisions that Johnson decried) was up and reliance on food charities was becoming a defining feature of the economic landscape.
The GINI coefficient, a number used to measure inequality in individual countries, rose slightly for the first two years of Johnson’s premiership; when it fell marginally last year, that was due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the initial hit to top earners’ wealth in 2020, rather than to broader long-term policy changes. Months into his premiership, Johnson was forced to admit that the U.K. was more geographically unequal, in terms of income, than any other major industrial democracy.
On COVID, he talked of the need for everyone to pitch in and sacrifice, yet it turns out that he and his colleagues were cavalierly breaking their own lockdown rules pretty much whenever the opportunity presented itself.
As with Trump, Johnson felt a need to install “loyalists” around him. While Trump’s loyalists were almost all white and Christian, Johnson’s government was more ethnically and religiously diverse. Yet, despite that fact, its members generally shared the same elite class position and opted not to force the larger-than-life PM to share the spotlight with them. In the end, when push came to shove, Johnson valued sycophancy far more than diversity of opinion.
Given this, it’s something of a miracle that Johnson sowed so much discord and distrust that even the loyalists who had spent the last several years compromising their own decency in pursuit of power felt the need to resign by the dozens last week, so as to force an end to his calamitous tenure in office.
But, now that he has resigned in disgrace, Johnson seems to have no intention of going quietly into the political night. Within a day of resigning, the caretaker prime minister had put together a new cabinet, many of whose members were promptly derided by Conservative insiders as being so politically toxic that their presence in government could only have been considered by a prime minister looking to set in place political landmines for whomever his successor might be.
His diehard supporters were already launching whispering campaigns against the frontrunner in the succession race, the ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak. And despite promises not to embark on any controversial policy initiatives during his months as a caretaker, Johnson made it clear he would continue his policy of unilaterally ripping up the agreement with the EU regarding trade routes and inspection protocols in and out of Northern Ireland — a policy that threatens to trigger a trade war with Europe.
There are, at last count, at least 15 likely contenders to succeed Johnson as Conservative Party leader and thus, as prime minister. Some of them are backbench nonentities who will surely fall to the wayside over the coming days and weeks; but several others are top Cabinet ministers, who will be in the campaign for the long haul. There’s Sunak, who until last week was the chancellor (the rough equivalent to the U.S. treasury secretary, though with more powers to set tax rates and craft a governing agenda); there’s Liz Truss, the hardline foreign secretary; and there’s Transport Secretary Grant Schapps. And then there’s Attorney General Suella Braverman, who has made a name for herself championing the most right-wing of Johnson’s policies, and who many in the British commentariat have described as being the most Trumpian in temperament of the whole gaggle. It’s likely that Sajid Javid — whose resignation from his position as health secretary was, along with Sunak’s exit, the trigger for the revolt that led to Johnson’s demise — will put his hat in the ring, as will the fiercely anti-immigrant, “law-and-order” Home Secretary Priti Patel.
In this list of contenders, one can see the outlines of a Conservative Party at war with itself. There are one-nation moderates, such as the ex-military man Tom Tugendhat; but there are also a slew of hard-liners who care far more about the old Thatcherite project of lowering taxes and deregulating the economy. There are those opposed to recent National Insurance tax increases, and those who argue that every penny allocated for vital social goods, such as increased spending on the National Health Service and subsidies to tide poor residents over during this period of historically high energy prices, need to be paid for by taxes levelled not on the wealthiest but on ordinary, already financially strapped residents.
Despite Johnson’s efforts to purge the party of anti-Brexiteers, there are at least some contenders who would, if asked privately, probably want to round out the sharpest edges of Britain’s ugly divorce from the EU. On the other side of the divide, there are those who would like nothing more than to make Brexit as hard, and as ironclad as possible, to entirely separate the U.K. from Europe’s human rights court, and to shred the environmental and workplace rules that broadly harmonize the U.K.’s labor market with that of continental Europe.
Throughout, as this political saga has unfolded, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have largely been sidelined, watching as the Conservatives tear into each other and as their standing with the public has cratered. Some Conservative Party insiders have reportedly started talking about the prospects of the party splitting in the face of this bloodbath and these irreconcilable political differences, as did the Labour Party in the early 1980s, with disastrous consequences for its election prospects.
Labour’s leader, Sir Keir Starmer, himself not the most charismatic or imaginative of leaders, was until recently also facing investigations by police into possible breaches of COVID lockdown restrictions. But last week, the local police force involved cleared him of any wrongdoing.
Now, improbably, less than three years after Johnson led the Conservatives to an election victory that resulted in an 80-seat parliamentary majority, a newly refashioned Labour Party is far ahead of the Conservatives in the polls.
If there were an election tomorrow, Labour, which is generally seen as being less corrupt and more in tune with the needs of economically struggling voters, would, according to these polls, come out with roughly 50 seats more than the Conservatives. As a result, it would be in a strong position to be able to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and a smattering of nationalist groups — though the Scottish Nationalists, in particular, would likely drive a hard bargain before agreeing to support a Starmer premiership.
Last month, when Johnson survived a no-confidence vote in his leadership, he made it clear he was hoping to rule for a decade. Now, barely a month later, he is about to be out on his ear, having suffered one of the most stunning turnarounds in British political history. Johnson the individual will soon be departing Downing Street, and Johnsonism as a political project has hit the rocks. Moreover, the party that he presided over so ruthlessly since 2019 is sliding into a summer of knives-out political infighting that could easily fracture it for years to come and ultimately lead to its electoral implosion two years from now when the next general election is held.