First Boris Johnson, Then the Whole Ruling Class

The government has created a crisis for working people. But the Tory MPs rebelling against Boris Johnson haven't suddenly discovered their moral compasses – they're rats fleeing a sinking ship.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the National Service of Thanksgiving to Celebrate the Platinum Jubilee at St Paul's Cathedral on 3 June 2022 in London, England. (Aaron Chown - WPA Pool / Getty Images)

Britain’s press is all aflutter this morning. Graham Brady, Chairman of the 1922 Committee, has announced that the threshold for a vote of no confidence in the prime minister, Boris Johnson—a request from 15 percent of Tory MPs—has been passed. The vote will take place tonight at 6 PM, with the result announced not long after 8.

As many have pointed out, Boris Johnson has had it coming for a while. Stories about government breaches of lockdown rules have refused to let up since they first started breaking in November, and as early as December there were rumblings about letters to the 1922 Committee, with MPs told they could write via email over the Christmas break for maximum convenience. The Sue Gray saga and the Met Police investigation only furthered accusations of ruling-class collusion and attempts at Partygate cover-ups, but they ultimately left Johnson the first sitting prime minister to receive a fixed penalty notice. The obvious lightness of that penalty for a man of Johnson’s wealth aside, the fine has been pointed at by his opponents on both sides of the benches as evidence of his personal failings and unfitness for his office. For the ‘law-and-order’ Tories, he’s become a liability.

Conservative rebels have largely couched their objections to Johnson in the language of morality, with one document circulating arguing that the whole government has now become a vehicle exclusively operating to save his career. But it’s obviously not a coincidence that those objections have coincided with an attitudinal shift among the public and, perhaps more importantly, the press. The silence from the same benches on thousands of children going hungry or the pensioners forced to face cold weather without heat shows how thin that morality really is.

And while the headlines are dominated by the upcoming vote, the cost of living crisis continues to bite. 7.3 million people reported not having enough to eat in May, and the energy price ‘regulator’ is set to allow prices to jump again by another £800 this October, just as the cold weather kicks in. Wages are nowhere near the predicted ten percent inflation and social security has undergone yet another real-terms cut. The measures the government has announced, even Sunak’s latest, don’t touch the sides, and while most of the resulting anger has blown back on the chancellor (whose popularity, between this crisis and his wife’s non-dom status, has plummeted), it’s also representative of a growing discontent with the state of things more broadly.

Getting rid of Johnson would be an act of self-preservation for the Tories, then, letting them cast the present crisis as the result of individual failings rather than an inherent problem with their political model manifested in more than a decade of misgovernance. It lets them look like they’re doing something, while the desperate state of things facing the country’s most vulnerable changes very little. Tories who heard the booing directed at Johnson during this weekend’s jubilee celebrations have recoginsed that his brand is becoming increasingly toxic, and the rats are fleeing a sinking ship.

Of course, despite all that, there’s no guarantee he’ll lose the vote tonight. Pundits suggest he’s likely to win. For Labour, the best option is arguably to keep a hamstrung Johnson in his office rather than replace him with someone less sullied by ‘Partygate’ stains, against whom Keir Starmer’s own ‘Beergate’ situation—confected or otherwise—might show up more clearly. Johnson’s survival seems more likely thanks to the fact that there’s no obvious PM-in-waiting since Rishi Sunak’s fall from grace: the rest of the options are culture warriors and bankers, people who represent no break from the status quo and are unlikely to pull back the rising tide of food bank Britain even if he did lose. Johnson could well be replaced by someone worse.

Broadly, this all makes the case for the Left to dismiss the potential removal of Johnson as establishment drama, ruling-class squabbling without consequences for the wellbeing of working people or the advance of any progressive project. And mostly, that’s true. But today’s news also offers a source of hope for socialists, in the fact that it likely wouldn’t be happening without a public otherwise consigned to politics as reality show—the only option left to us by a ruling class that perceives our opinions as something to be at best ignored, and at worst, violently repressed—expressing genuine anger.

In the first place, it’s possible the lockdown party stories wouldn’t have stuck quite so well had they not been followed up immediately by the cost of living disaster compounding the class divisions they represented. Partygate may have broken in the press as part of a coordinated ruling-class attack on one of its own, but it resonated because it hinged on a real and recognisable class discrepancy—one that saw frontline workers dying without PPE and others left fighting to get by on £90 a week in sick pay while our rich leaders toasted themselves with suitcases full of wine. The real political division is not whether you think Boris Johnson should stay or go, but whether we see the behaviour that brought us to this point as an individual failing or a system-wide one.

The task for socialists, then, isn’t to dismiss that anger the public feels against Johnson. It’s to make the case that he’s a particularly egregious symptom, not the disease. Finding a cure means getting rid not just of those individuals who are no longer useful to the ruling class, who break the rules a little too casually, a little too obviously, but the ruling class as a whole. In the meantime, like most of us, I’m more than happy to see our prime minister sweat—but we should view whatever happens this evening as a beginning, not as an end.