After months of mounting pressure and an ever-lengthening string of scandals, Boris Johnson has finally been ousted as Tory leader and, once a successor has been installed, as prime minister. His decision to appoint Chris Pincher—now facing a series of allegations of sexual assault—as deputy chief whip finally pushed Johnson over the edge; the allegations surrounding Pincher had long been common knowledge among MPs and hacks at Westminster, none of whom previously saw fit to enlighten the general public.
We were treated this week to the amusing spectacle of Johnson’s cabinet ministers desperately deserting him, taking a leaf out of the Parliamentary Labour Party’s book and emulating the ‘chicken coup’ of 2016, though more successfully on this occasion. As Keir Starmer put it, they were ‘sinking ships fleeing the rat’, surely the funniest thing Starmer has said in his otherwise humourless life. The sight of these contemptible characters scurrying away while wringing their hands about their so-called principles was undeniably entertaining.
Rishi Sunak, you suspect, was only too happy to do a runner from 11 Downing Street and he gratefully grasped at the chance when it came; with millions expected to be plunged into serious hardship this winter as energy bills threaten to top £3,000 a year, far better to hand over direct responsibility to some other sap. Interestingly, in his resignation statement he was quick to pin the government’s supposedly free-spending economic policy on Johnson rather than himself, spouting the usual Tory inanities about tax cuts and fiscal restraint on his way out.
Amazingly, Jeremy Corbyn remains the spectre at the establishment’s feast, more than two years after his tenure as Labour leader ended. Hence Nadhim Zahawi—Chancellor for all of forty-eight hours this week—smeared Corbyn as a ‘dangerous antisemite’ in his resignation statement, though without mentioning his name. Outgoing health secretary Sajid Javid, meanwhile, thanked Johnson for ‘seeing off the threat of Corbynism’; certainly, the ‘threat’ of a functioning welfare state, publicly-owned utilities, and trade union rights has been seen off, at least for now.
If nothing else, Javid hit the nail on the head about Johnson’s purpose: charlatan and opportunist though he undoubtedly is, it was exactly this bluff populism that enabled the Tories to ward off the danger of left social democracy when they had nothing else. Nor was it just the Tories who were content to see it buried: the sensible centre, too, though oddly reluctant to criticise Corbynite policies on principle—probably because they were and remain more popular than anything centrists have to offer—knew perfectly well what choices it was making from 2015 to 2019.
Johnson’s anti-establishment posturing was always bogus, but his defenestration does have a whiff of restorationism about it. With the populist apparition now exorcised from the Labour Party, many among the Tory ranks—uncomfortable with their newfound reliance on a plebeian base, particularly in former industrial towns—must have hankered after their own equivalent. While Tory gains in the old ‘Red Wall’ were, in reality, mainly concentrated among older and more propertied voters, recent losses in the shires have caused some nervousness.
Still, the parade of Tories walking out on Johnson while posturing—laughably—as if their sense of honour had been mortally wounded by him gave centrists the chance to do what they seem to enjoy most: scrape the bottom of the barrel in search of ‘decent Tories’ to lavish praise upon. Much vaunted but lesser spotted, these creatures raised barely a squeak of protest when Johnson rode roughshod over civil liberties, baited minorities, and bragged about deporting refugees to an uncertain fate in Rwanda. Only a truly degraded liberalism, if we can even call it that, could see anything redeemable in this gaggle of grotesques.
There was no shortage of sensible centrists delighting in Johnson’s removal, but much less attention was paid to the political and media culture that allowed him to flourish in the first place. Johnson was always a media creation—right from his early days as a fixture on the mirthless TV panel show circuit—but many of those cheering his downfall now were only too happy to give him star-struck, adoring coverage when they needed him as a cudgel against Corbyn. That function safely fulfilled, they can now drop him like a hot spud.
It was left to Jeremy Corbyn, inevitably, to make the obvious point that the reason the Tories have gone through so many leaders in recent years is that none of them have any substantial answers to the major crises facing the country, economic and environmental. Instead, they continually rebrand themselves to hoodwink the electorate, each time giving the impression of a fundamental shift in direction every time they choose a new leader. But to paraphrase Aneurin Bevan, you need a good salesman if you’re punting shoddy goods.
This could pose problems for Labour, however. Starmer and his party have built up a decent poll lead in recent months, largely on the back of bewailing Johnson’s personal virtue (or lack thereof). In the absence of a real critique of the depredations of Tory rule, and a substantial political alternative to it, it’s not clear what will happen when the Tories replace Johnson. Starmer may get lucky—Liz Truss might win—but there is a danger that the Tories, after a spell of bloodletting, simply do their usual rebrand and move on as if nothing major has happened.
For the political establishment and the ruling class as a whole, Johnson’s departure rids them of an obvious liability and provides a much-needed distraction from its escalating assault on working-class living standards. But it will need more than mere spectacle when hefty energy bills start dropping on doorsteps over the coming months. Whichever ghoul the Tories choose, and they have plenty to choose between, none of them will come bearing any palliatives for those who desperately need them.