Two by-election losses are the latest disaster for Johnson’s failing premiership, comments Rachel Eborall.
Boris Johnson has faced another brutal blow to his authority after the Conservatives lost both the Wakefield and the Tiverton and Honiton by elections on Thursday night. Labour regained Wakefield, whilst the Liberal Democrats overturned a 24,000-plus Tory majority to win Tiverton and Honiton. Johnson is now limping from one leadership crisis to another and his vows to stay look increasingly desperate. The election defeat prompted the Conservative co-chair Oliver Dowden to quit. Even the Telegraph is describing the result as a historic defeat.
Sir Geoffrey Clinton-Brown, Treasurer of the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs, said this morning that after this electoral defeat they could consider rule changes to allow another vote of confidence. Johnson, who won a ‘historic victory’ in 2019, is now toxic. 40 percent of his own MPs voted against him in a vote of no confidence a few weeks ago. Opinion polls suggest that Tories will lose their majority in the next election as Tory infighting intensifies – infighting which will continue as there is no single candidate considered viable by the different factions within the party. Another leadership campaign is likely to highlight the deep fissures among Tory MPs and strategists.
In 2019 when the red wall turned blue, we were told that Johnson had changed the political landscape, a historic shift that reflected a fundamental change in the desires and ideas of voters in traditional Labour heartlands. It is increasingly clear that wasn’t true, and Johnson in fact won that election on the back of the promise to get Brexit done.
Partygate has obviously played a key role in changing Johnson from an electoral asset to liability, but going forward the Tories face a much deeper problem. The cost-of-living crisis is a major political crisis for them. They need to intervene in the economy if they are to win the next election, but they can’t do that without betraying some of the core ideology of hard right backbenchers and cabinet members.
Those tensions were revealed when Rishi Sunak made a U-turn and imposed a windfall tax on oil and gas companies – William Rees-Mogg responded by highlighting the economic consequences of such a move. One side of the party is arguing for deregulation, tax cuts and public sector pay restraint whilst another section knows that they need to address the cost-of-living crisis to maintain their position as MPs. Despite their divisions over the economy, Tory MPs will still come together to attack groups like immigrants and trans people, fighting “culture wars” and trying to use right-wing populism to hold on to voters – but that leaves their basic problems unsolved.
Millions of people are facing economic disaster as inflation rises, wages stagnate and a threatened rise in interest rates makes mortgage payments unmanageable. The Tories have offered payments to help people pay the bills, but these are too small to ease the pressures people are facing. The poorest will be most affected by the cost-of-living crisis, but the issues are even starting to have some effect on people on higher incomes including previous Tory voters.
Labour won the Wakefield by-election, but the result is a rejection of Johnson rather than an endorsement of the Labour Party. Labour’s response to the cost-of-living crisis has been pathetic. Rachel Reeves has been advocating a strategy which is both “pro-worker and pro-business”, arguing for partnership working as some businesses make record profits by exploiting workers and consumers. Labour totally ignores the egregious pay packets of CEOs like Sainsbury’s chief executive Simon Roberts, who gets £3.8m a year – 183 times the pay of an average employee, while the company is cutting 300 jobs.
As Johnson’s leadership crisis deepens, the media will focus on Westminster. However, the Tories face a much more serious threat. The large TUC march last Saturday signaled a shift in mood for many in the organised working class. The RMT strike has clearly illustrated the power of workers. Veteran Tory Ken Clarke recognised the danger facing Johnson when he commented on the RMT strike that ‘success for rail workers could trigger vast amounts of the public sector being induced to go in for the same militancy’.
The RMT are not alone – an all-out strike on Arriva buses has been going on for two weeks in Yorkshire, and Stagecoach buses on Merseyside will take action in the next two weeks. UNISON members at Leeds University were on strike this week. Heathrow airport workers have won a strike ballot. Care workers at four homes in the south west are striking after threats to sack them unless they accept a pay cut. Communications workers in the CWU are balloting for strike action, while teachers and junior doctors are threatening to do so.
Over the summer we need to show solidarity with all workers taking action. We need to argue that these strikes aren’t just economic but political. Everyone who hates the Tories should be encouraged to visit a picket, building a joint campaign of unions, campaigns and individuals to oust Johnson.
Low wages and poverty aren’t inevitable. Boris Johnson and the Tories want ordinary people to pay for this economic crisis. Militant strike action can win over pay, and can deal a body blow to a prime minister and government weakened by these by election results.