The Conservative Party won an 80-seat majority at the last election, adding the ‘Red Wall’ seats to its traditional safe seats; and it has at times seemed impregnable as a result.
But there have since been by-election results which have cast increasing doubt on that position. North Shropshire (in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal and the government’s attempt to rip up the parliamentary standards), Chesham and Amersham, and most recently both Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton have all swung away from the Conservatives. Tiverton and Honiton, in particular, saw a huge majority of 24,000 fall with a 30% swing to the Liberal Democrats. It is no longer clear that there is such a thing as a safe seat.
In the wake of the last two results, Oliver Dowden, the Conservative Party Chairman, resigned. Former Conservative David Gauke commented:
“Dowden … was an early supporter of Boris Johnson in 2019 because he thought Johnson offered the best route to a Conservative general election victory. It is obvious from Dowden’s resignation letter that he now thinks that Johnson’s resignation is the best route to winning the next general election.”
And of course Dowden is far from alone in such thoughts. Johnson’s future has seldom looked less secure. Indeed, the future of the UK now looks very uncertain.
In fact, the process determining who controls the Conservative Party and so, to some extent, the fate of the UK has uncanny parallels with the final scene of the spaghetti-Western, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly:
- The key groups and individuals in and behind today’s Conservative Party bear a strong resemblance to the key protagonists in the film;
- We are approaching a three-way stand-off between them, as happened in the final scene of the film; and
- The outcome of the stand-off will be hugely important for the future of the UK, as it was in the film.
The key players bear a strong resemblance
The three key groups in the Conservative party today are Johnson and his supporters; the extreme right-wing and undemocratic Market Fundamentalists in cabinet, in the ERG and backing the party; and the more moderate one-nation conservatives.
In Sergio Leone’s 1966 film, the three protagonists were, as described by Wikipedia:
- The Ugly: Tuco Benedicto Pacífico Juan María Ramírez, a fast-talking, comically oafish yet also cunning, cagey, resilient and resourceful bandit, wanted by the authorities for a long list of crimes (played by Eli Wallach);
- The Bad: ‘Angel Eyes’: a ruthless, confident, borderline-sadistic mercenary, who takes a pleasure in killing (played by Lee Van Cleef); and
- The Good: ‘Blondie,’ the Man with No Name: a taciturn, confident bounty-hunter with a conscience (played by Clint Eastwood).
It does not take an enormous leap to cast Johnson as The Ugly, The Market Fundamentalists in and behind the government as The Bad, and the one-nation conservatives as The Good.
We are approaching a three-way stand-off between them
In the iconic final scene of the film, their competitive search for a stolen a cache of Confederate gold leads the three protagonists to the cemetery where it has been hidden, and they end-up facing each other in a three-way, winner-takes-all contest.
In the film, the tension is greater than in a two-handed gunfight because each protagonist has to decide who to shoot first – and the wrong choice could be fatal.
Similarly, in the case of UK politics, each protagonist has to choose between two plans – and the wrong decision could be politically fatal.
|Designation||Represents||Plan A: Their preference||Plan B: their fall-back|
|The Ugly||Johnson||Remain as Prime Minister and lead a winning campaign at next election in 2024||Call a snap election rather than relinquish premiership|
|The Bad||The Market Fundamentalists (MF)||Use Johnson as vote-winner and drive MF policies to make opposition impractical||Get a MF replacement and drive MF policies to make opposition impractical|
|The Good||The one-nation Conservatives||Get a genuine one-nation Conservative installed now as Johnson’s replacement||Resist from within, limiting the damage or, failing that, defect to a moderate party|
The outcome will be hugely important for the future of the UK
The dynamics in the film were not as they seemed, however – the Good had secretly replaced the Ugly’s bullets with blanks, which shifted the odds in his favour.
In the case of UK politics, the dynamics are also not symmetrical – the Ugly has a Plan B which trumps what either the Good or the Bad may do – if he feels compelled to use it.
A possible set of outcomes from these choices is shown below.
For the population of the UK, these outcomes are profoundly different.
The worst would be if the Bad switches to and succeeds in its Plan B: ousts Johnson, replaces him with a market fundamentalist who enjoys a long enough honeymoon and is able to pin enough blame for the country’s problems onto Johnson to win the next election. In that scenario, both UK democracy and our social contract would risk fatal damage.
The best outcome would be if the Ugly switches to his Plan B and loses the next election. In that scenario a progressive alliance could start to reverse the damage this government has inflicted on the UK population over the last 12 years.
The UK is in a paradoxical situation: if Johnson is replaced quickly, there is a risk of an even worse outcome; but if he is at serious risk of being replaced quickly and therefore triggers his Plan B, the best outcome becomes far more likely.
For the one-nation conservatives who wish to regain control of their party and for all those outside the party who wish to preserve the UK as a functioning democracy, the best chance of a good outcome is to intensify the pressure to replace Johnson on the basis that his willingness to sacrifice anyone and anything in his own interests will lead him to choose his plan B rather than quietly resign.
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