UKania’s Tories on the Skids

Photograph Source: bixentro – CC BY 2.0

Boris “BoJo” Johnson’s design to reconfigure the Conservative Party started to take shape after a majority of voters supported the Leave option in the 2016 Brexit referendum. The then prime minister, David Cameron, resigned as Conservative leader and prime minister after the referendum. BoJo did not stand in the subsequent election for Tory leader, although he was widely regarded as a front runner.

Theresa May won the election to be Conservative Party leader and prime minister, and appointed BoJo Foreign Secretary in July 2016.

In July 2018, 3 days after a cabinet meeting at Chequers to finalize a Brexit strategy, BoJo resigned his post. Few regard his time at the Foreign Office as a success. BoJo returned to the backbenches and resumed his spotty career as a journalist.

On 16 May 2019, BoJo announced he would stand in the forthcoming Conservative Party leadership election following Theresa May’s awaited resignation. BoJo was elected leader on 23 July, and became prime minister. BoJo appointed Dominic Cummings (widely regarded as a Rasputin-like schemer) with whom he worked on the Vote Leave campaign, as his senior adviser.

The refashioning of the Tory party began under the tutelage of Cummings.

BoJo’s first move was to purge the party’s senior leadership of its referendum Remainers. In appointing his first cabinet, BoJo dismissed 11 senior ministers and accepted the resignation of 6 others. The mass dismissal was the most extensive postwar cabinet reorganization without a change in the then governing party. Brexit loyalists took the places of those kicked-out.

BoJo had inherited a government without an overall parliamentary majority from Theresa May.

On 3 September 2019, the Tory MP Phillip Lee defected to the Liberal Democrats following a disagreement with BoJo’s Brexit policy. This left the government in an even more precarious position in the House of Commons. Later that day, 21 Tory MPs had the party whip withdrawn for disobeying party orders and supporting an opposition motion. The whip was restored to 10 former Conservative ministers on 29 October.

The purge of the Remainers was now pretty much complete.

BoJo’s first task was to call an election in order to secure an overall parliamentary majority. His strategy was simple, namely, replicate the successful Leave campaign.

With Cummings in change, the insistent message was “Get Brexit Done”. Labour was deeply divided over Brexit, and its election campaign focused on bread-and-butter issues—inequality, homelessness, hunger, jobs, and so forth.

The Tories faced a threat on the right from Nigel Farage’s UK Independence Party (UKIP). UKIP’s message was Europhobic/xenophobic, and focused on immigration, crime perpetrated by minorities, the so-called “featherbedding” of non-whites. Race baiting was integral to the message.

Cummings and BoJo neutralized UKIP by swiping most of its agenda so the Tories couldn’t be outflanked from the right.

Labour was portrayed as wishy-washy and compromised on Brexit. The above-mentioned problems identified as part of its bread-and-butter agenda were placed at the feet of the EU—Ukania was in a mess because of its subservience to overlords in Brussels!

The Tory campaign, aided by the rightwing tabloids and pools of “dark money”, was mendacious and replete with dirty tricks. The culture wars featured heavily.

Traducing the EU (e.g., it was said repeatedly that the UK couldn’t have adequate controls on immigration because its hands were tied by the EU), making false promises of a new post-Brexit golden age, breaking with the “liberal consensus”, all accompanied by a vapid pledge to “level-up” the UK’s poorer areas, got the reconfigured and realigned Tory party an 80-seat majority (the largest since Mrs Thatcher in 1987).

The Tories had acquired a new electoral base in the process: more identifiably working-class, less highly educated, located in the North (as opposed to the wealthy shires around London), and less culturally liberal.

Ukania’s first-past-the-post electoral system also served the Tories well. The main opposition parties, Labour and the Lib Dems, are based overwhelmingly in cities and university towns, whereas Tory voters are evenly spread throughout England and Wales. So long as they get continued support from Brexiters, the Tories have the electoral upper hand.

However, BoJo’s time since the 2019 election has been increasingly fraught. He promised his base a “new” politics, but has failed to deliver, largely as a result of his deeply flawed personality, and his need to surround himself with incompetent second- and even third-rate “yes” men and women.

Cummings, who had been able to impose a modicum of discipline on the erratic BoJo, was shown the door on 13 November 2020 after a row with BoJo’s wife Carrie (known in social media as Carrie Antoinette).

The Brexit deal BoJo signed with the EU turned out to be a dud, and was said to be even worse than the one proposed by Theresa May, which BoJo had opposed as part of his attempt to take over from her as Tory leader and prime minister.

The Covid pandemic has been badly mismanaged. Tory corruption and nepotism have been rampant.

Up to 6 months ago, “Teflon” BoJo and the Tories maintained a big lead over Labour. 70% of Tory voters in 2019 still supported BoJo, as did 51% of Leave voters. A mere 18% of Tory voters were no longer enthusiastic, saying they were not sure they would vote in the next election.

Today, the “Blue Wall” BoJo had erected in 2019 is crumbling. The percentage of 2019 Tory voters supporting BoJo is down to 54%, while the percentage of Leave voters is down to 37%. At the same time, the percentage of Tory voters drifting towards other parties, or losing their enthusiasm for it, has climbed to 38%.

This spells deep trouble for the Tories. The party and its accompanying political agenda had been completely restructured around Brexit and the Leave vote (so much so that some had started to call it “UKIP Lite”).

Now, leaving the “undecideds” or “don’t knows” to one side, over 60% of the Leave vote is no longer positioned behind BoJo. Meanwhile, the Reform party (UKIP’s successor) has been making inroads into the Tory vote— its support has almost doubled among 2019 Tory voters. The Reform party still has a long way to go before it matches UKIP’s past performance, but it still poses a threat to BoJo from the far right.

BoJo’s urgent task is to mend his standing with 2019 Leave voters. So far, he has encountered nothing but setbacks.

For the last 3 weeks the UK media has been abuzz will stories of 2020 Christmas parties at 10 Downing Street, Tory HQ, and a number of ministries, all this while Covid restrictions were in place which confined social gatherings to 2 people. Nearly every newspaper had headlines saying “One rule for them, another for the rest of us”.

BoJo could only respond to these disclosures with a farrago of lies and evasions.

BoJo paid a price at the recent North Shropshire byelection for the seat vacated by the disgraced ex-MP Owen Paterson, who resigned after being found guilty of illegal lobbying. BoJo made strong-armed and barely legal attempts to shield Paterson from punishment, and his recent troubles began at that point.

The byelection resulted in an astonishing win for the Lib Dems. The 34-point swing in a rural pro-Brexit seat (60% voted Leave) that has been Conservative for 200 years, was the 7th biggest byelection swing in UK history.

BoJo’s growing weakness in recent months has emboldened hardline libertarian dissenters within his own party. On 14 December 99 of his own MPs voted against his Covid Plan B designed to fight the Omicron variant. BoJo won the vote with the support of opposition parties.

Parliament is now in recess, so BoJo has some breathing room. He has been put on notice by his own party, who, reportedly, have asked him to get a grip and shape up.

But BoJo seems safe for now. Potential leadership contenders exist, but seem unwilling to risk an unsuccessful leadership bid with the next election scheduled to be held as far away as Thursday 2 May 2024 (though BoJo can call a snap election before that).

Labour, while hardly lifting a finger, now leads the Tories in all the opinion polls.

The next electoral challenge for the Tories will be the 5 May 2022 local elections. If the results are a wipeout for the Tories, it will be hard to see BoJo remaining in office beyond the end of 2022.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.