There is great scope for improvement and, unfortunately, plenty of scope for being worse than Johnson.
It has now become obvious even to his own ministers that Johnson is not fit to be Prime Minister. And of course, that raises the question of who will come after, both for the remainder of this term and after the next general election.
There are increasing claims from both far-Left and far-Right that “they are all the same.” A kind of black-and-white thinking that suggests that since no politician (or party) is perfect, there is little to choose between them and things could realistically neither get better nor worse.
The so-called “Beergate” scandal, for example, was driven by the far-Right. After Johnson had been found guilty of breaching his own COVID regulations, a serious offence for which ordinary people were fined up to £10,000, outcry in the right-wing media and by Conservative MPs forced the Durham police to reopen their inquiry (which has just concluded that Starmer had no case to answer) in an attempt to portray Starmer as being equally culpable.
And from the far-Left, we see claims like this:
Is there any truth to these arguments? Are all politicians much the same nowadays? Does Labour really support the Conservatives? Do we really have a significant choice to make at the next election?
In fact, we have the most fundamental choice of our lives to make at the next election – so we should vote wisely:
- Johnson has been a uniquely poor Prime Minister – so far;
- His immediate successor may be worse;
- The next election may be our last chance to preserve UK democracy.
Johnson has been a uniquely poor Prime Minister
Johnson is a noted liar. Nobody born has gone through life without telling a lie, and politicians are no exception to that rule. But Johnson and his colleagues are in a completely different league.
As Rory Stewart put it:
“There’s huge evidence: Boris Johnson lies all the time – you can document hundreds of lies, so I don’t think we’re waiting for the Sue Gray report to find out whether he lies.
He lies to his wife, he lies to his employers, he lies to his colleagues, he lies to Parliament. And often he does it in different ways, sometimes he does it by pretending to be ignorant, sometimes he does it with a joke, sometimes he does it by ignoring the question.
He’s probably the best liar we’ve ever had as a prime minister. He knows a hundred different ways to lie.”
And lies are corrosive of democracy. But his unsuitability for office goes way beyond lies – and even way beyond corruption. Johnson’s premiership has been far more damaging than his predecessors’ were.
The two key things that we would expect of a UK Prime Minister would be to preserve the functioning of UK democracy and to look after the interests of the UK population – in other words to preserve the Social Contract. Johnson’s performance has been far worse on these two issues than May or even Cameron.
May’s government is perhaps a good yardstick: May was Johnson’s immediate predecessor and was a Prime Minister who achieved little in either a positive or negative way. Like her predecessors she did not attempt fundamental reform of our democratic systems. And because of her focus on Brexit, she did relatively little in terms of addressing the weaknesses in our social contract. (She and Hammond did slightly reduce the rate of austerity, but they did not reverse it).
Johnson’s government, by contrast, has launched an unprecedented attack on UK democracy. We no longer have the right to vote without showing photo-id like a driving licence or passport, which many younger and poorer people do not have. It is not illegal for younger or poor people to vote, and there are ways around the restrictions, but they can no longer simply enter the polling booth as they could in the past. The Electoral Commission has always been an independent body; it now reports to ministers(!) The relative treatment of the Partygate fines (Johnson received only a single £50 fine when others who oversaw a single party were fined £10,000) and the failure to prosecute anyone for the PPE and Test & Trace procurement scandals indicate that there is increasingly one law for the rich and another for the poor. And we no longer even have the right to peaceful protest.
It is still legal for opposition parties to exist and oppose the government – but the new Elections Act restricts joint campaigning, and with the Electoral Commission under the control of the government, there are serious risks to the idea of a fair election campaign.
Johnson’s government has not eliminated a free-press, but it distributed largesse to favoured outlets during COVID, and the bulk of our media are now even more strongly supportive of the government especially during elections.
In the short period of his premiership, Johnson has already transformed our democracy more than any predecessor – and greatly for the worse. As Ken Clarke warned us, we are dangerously close to becoming an elected dictatorship.
Johnson’s impact on our social contract has been similarly dire: worse even than Cameron, whose disastrous austerity gravely damaged the economy and cost over 120,000 British lives. Median wages are lower today than they were in 2007, as are real benefits, and we are now facing a cost-of-living crisis which the Bank of England predicts will cause the sharpest fall in living standards since records began. Poverty is rising sharply. Foodbanks have grown enormously to try to meet the need of British people to eat and feed their children. The NHS is in crisis both because of underfunding and the government’s misconceived COVID strategy. Last year more people were forced to have hip replacements privately than were able to have one under the NHS. The new Health & Care Bill will enable yet more drift towards the US system – the worst in the developed world.
None of Johnson’s predecessors stoked division and discrimination as PM (Cameron legalised gay marriage), though May did so while Home Secretary. Johnson has done so at every turn in all his roles. His Race Commission overturned virtually every other report in recent years to conclude that the UK no longer has a problem of institutional racism. He has successfully kept alive the divisions over Brexit in which Remainers and Brexiters find it hard to have a rational discussion, and he launched a ‘war on woke’ to further divide the population.
The chart below summarises the comparison with Johnson’s predecessors.
As you can see, compared with his Conservative predecessors, Johnson is an outlier – not in a good way. A continued May premiership, while certainly far from ideal, would have done far less damage to the UK. Had the electorate been faced with the choice between the two, a rational voter from the Left would have held his or her nose and voted for May. Similarly, a rational one-nation Conservative if faced with the choice between Blair and Johnson, would have gritted his or her teeth and voted for Blair.
There is no black and white in this chart: no Prime Minister has been close to perfect, but none has been as bad as possible. There is great scope for improvement and, unfortunately, plenty of scope for being worse than Johnson. And, as the chart indicates, the idea that even a centrist (e.g. Blairite in tendency) Labour government would support the sorts of policy that Johnson has been implementing is beyond far-fetched.
His immediate successor may well be worse
On the face of it, Johnson’s track record makes his departure extremely welcome. But that is to ignore his cabinet. Most of the candidates to replace Johnson are self-proclaimed market fundamentalists.
Sunak seems to be the ‘favourite,’ but he would be worse than Johnson for several reasons. First, he played a key role in making sure that our COVID response was among the most damaging – both to health and to the economy – in the world. Not only did he invent the COVID-enabling ‘Eat out to Help Out’ scheme, he actively involved maverick scientists in order to delay taking action against COVID at a critical time. Economically, he has been equally disastrous – the choices he makes consistently favour the very wealthy and force normal people to stump up the cash. And his rhetoric consistently uses debt hysteria in a coded sign that he intends to continue with Cameron’s austerity policies, even in the face of the cost-of-living crisis and a depressed economy. As the Financial Times reported:
“The former chancellor signalled that his policy platform would concentrate on fiscal discipline — on which he clashed with Johnson. ‘Do we confront this moment with honesty, seriousness and determination?’ asked Sunak. ‘Or do we tell ourselves comforting fairy tales that might make us feel better in the moment but will leave our children worse off tomorrow?’”
This is a repetition, with slightly different rhetoric, of Cameron’s “magic money tree” argument: that the UK simply cannot afford to do the things it would need to do to preserve our social contract. If Sunak becomes the next Prime Minister, the UK is under even greater threat than it has been for the last three years – and our children and their children will be vastly poorer.
Then there are Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore and Elizabeth Truss, the authors of the book Britannia Unchained which blames the UK’s poor economic performance on the deeply unpatriotic idea (which is factually untrue: we work longer hours than Germany, France, and the Nordic countries – all of whom perform better economically) that “The British are among the worst idlers in the world.” Patel is also leading the assault on democracy with her Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act as well as her much-criticised Rwanda scheme.
And we must not forget Gove and Javid, both of whom would like to get rid of the NHS as a comprehensive, universal service, free at the point of use and funded by progressive taxation.
In fact almost all of the contenders are market fundamentalists who believe that “laws are for the little people” whereas money is for the “grown-ups.” Over 99% of the population, in their minds, count as “little people.”
If they have their way, the UK will become a country where, in the words of Lord Rees-Mogg:
“The new Sovereign Individual will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen, but in a separate realm politically.”
The next election may be our last chance to preserve UK democracy
The arguments above make it clear that if the next election returns a Conservative government, it will almost certainly not be a traditional one-nation Conservative government: it will be a market fundamentalist government with no regard either for democracy or for the wellbeing of 99% of the UK population. Most people will suffer immensely, and it will become increasingly difficult to undo the damage the government has caused.
Despite the current state of the polls, the next election is also likely to be finely balanced. It may not look like it today when (at the time of writing) Labour is 10% ahead in the polls. But a glance at the long-term history of UK elections shows that to achieve the kind of swing needed for Labour to form a majority government is rare – it happens only around 10% of the time.
And that is without factoring in three additional factors: the new electoral boundaries, which are estimated to gift the Conservatives 13 seats at the expense of Labour, the LibDems and Plaid Cymru; the impact of the Elections Act; and the likelihood that in the lead up to the election the right-wing press will mount a determined and relentless campaign to present all the damage done over the last 12 years as being the fault of the then departed Johnson, to portray the new Prime Minister as a second Churchill ready to save Britain in its hour of need, and to paint the Labour leader as a dangerous radical.
To be clear, those who will not vote for a change of government at the next election – whether that is best achieved by voting Labour, LibDem or Green – are in practice supporting the Conservatives.
Whether they know it or not.
And if too many people do that, the cost to the UK population will be countless lives ruined and (at least) tens of thousands lost.
Conversely, after the next election we could be looking at a (still imperfect) government which rebuilds our democratic safeguards, manages the economy soundly and shares the benefits of growth with the entire population – poverty rates could again start falling, wages could again start rising, and the NHS could again be the best healthcare system in the world.
To secure the future of the UK, we need:
- Moderates and progressives in all political parties (including the Conservatives) to realise how high the stakes have become and to co-operate to avoid another Conservative government – together, moderates and progressives have a very good chance of winning;
- Voters to drop their traditional party allegiances and vote tactically – it is unlikely that the next government will be perfect, but it need not be destructive, and ultimately voters have the power to elect the least harmful option;
- Non-voters to understand that – even if in the past they did not feel that their vote could make a difference, it can now (as the results in Shropshire North, Chesham and Amersham, Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton all show, there is no longer such a thing as a safe seat).
If you think you might like to help or just to keep informed, please do sign-up and join the 99% Organisation.