Replacing Boris Johnson Is Not Enough

After the North Shropshire by-election defeat, there have been calls to replace Boris Johnson with another Tory leader – but the problem with this government isn’t personality, it’s policy.

Boris Johnson gives a press conference at 10 Downing Street on 8 December 2021. (Adrian Dennis-WPA Pool / Getty Images)

The Liberal Democrats have won the once safe Tory seat of North Shropshire, overturning a Conservative majority of more than 20,000. Yesterday’s by-election was triggered by the resignation of disgraced Tory MP Owen Paterson—a man whose double-jobbing was once the centre of attention in another Tory scandal, now long lost to the national memory under a pile of Christmas parties—and saw Lib Dem candidate Helen Morgan head to victory with a comfortable 6,000-vote lead. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey is in the papers this morning firmly declaring the party ‘over’.

Things are looking bad for Boris Johnson. The Conservatives have no qualms about dropping leaders as and when it suits them, and despite Johnson’s conscientious attempts to disguise himself as anything but a leader this may all come down on his head. There’s talk of letters of no confidence sent to the backbench 1922 Committee, whose leaders yesterday informed Tory MPs that emails would also be accepted over the Christmas period for maximum convenience. An indication of how this might go for Johnson lies in the fact that the new Covid restrictions intended to grapple with Omicron were only passed with the help of Labour, after a massive Tory rebellion.

North Shropshire comes at the end of a string of screw-ups: Paterson, the Peppa Pig speech to the CBI, an ever-multiplying set of Covid Christmas parties. Going back far enough there’s also the Number 10 flat refurb, Mustique, the attempt to save Matt Hancock, and even Barnard Castle. Each of these have sent the civility-centred liberal press into a tizzy, and may ultimately be remembered for helping to bring an almost responsibility-impervious prime minister down.

But there’s also a set of failings that some would deem more serious—ones that too often seem to get forgotten among the arguments over cheese and wine. There’s Britain’s still-rising Covid death toll, which on 11 December government figures put at 146,667, with 803 deaths in the week leading up to today. There’s the fact that last year the Trussell Trust distributed a record 2.5 million emergency food bank parcels to people in crisis. There’s also the fact that the poorest families in the country keep getting poorer, while the incomes of the richest soar.

‘Failings’ is perhaps generous term, given that Johnson has embraced these outcomes. It was Johnson’s government that cut the £20 uplift to Universal Credit in October, leaving low-income families £1,700 per year worse off and forcing millions into poverty. It was Johnson’s government that attempted to stop free school meals for poor children during the school holidays until it was forced into a screeching U-turn by Marcus Rashford. It’s Johnson’s government that has brought in a slew of authoritarian legislation—from the Overseas Operations Bill to the Spy Cops Bill to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill—designed to make the representatives of this harsh state impervious to either legal or civil scrutiny.

Even now, it’s Johnson’s government introducing new Covid regulations without the financial support to help people weather them. After twenty months of a pandemic, they still refuse to increase a perilously low rate of statutory sick pay—one that forces thousands to choose between self-isolation and paying the bills. The clown persona, seared into our minds in the image of a man holding two union flags and hanging from a zip wire, is thin cover for an administration that has in reality been deadly.

But getting rid of Boris Johnson will not put any of these problems to bed. With someone like Rishi Sunak as prime minister—the country’s wealthiest MP who until yesterday remained on holiday in California while Britain’s hospitality trade collapsed—the country may turn even more sharply toward the interests of private cash. The others being touted as potential successors aren’t much better: Gove, Truss, Javid—corporate lobbyists and seasoned culture warriors. But with Covid again on the rise at Christmas—a too-soon reminder for many of the sacrifices demanded over the last twenty months—it’s easy enough to see why the public would want to.

And it seems they might. Last week, the prime minister’s approval rating, as registered by YouGov, dropped to an all-time low, having fallen eleven points since mid-November. Other concurrent polls found that more than half of voters thought Boris Johnson should resign. But the same poll also saw Keir Starmer make little headway, with a net favourability of -13 moving only to -14.

Despite Ed Davey’s justified crowing, the Liberal Democrats are not likely to become Britain’s second party any time soon. The crossroads at which we now find ourselves requires a Labour Party capable of making a meaningful case for a different kind of politics—not a watered-down version of Tory brutality, but a real alternative with people and their needs, rather than those of capital, at its heart.

It’s not a coincidence that Rishi Sunak has curated his personal branding to give off a sense of corporate ‘competence’. He is, as Kimi Chaddah has put it, making a distinct virtue of Not Being Boris Johnson. And there lies the danger for Labour: the Peppa Pig blunders are personal to Boris, but the millions now going into Christmas without enough money to turn on the heat or put food on the table are not. If Labour allows this to be fought on terms of personality rather than policy, we’re looking at a replay of the cruelties of the last two years all over again—just with a different Tory at the helm.