By Fayyez Patel – Regular Contributor
Harold Wilson famously once said that “a week is a long time in politics.” For Boris Johnson, the week between the brazen stories of his plans for not only a second, but a third full term in office as Prime Minister and the string of cabinet resignations which ultimately terminated his first term must have felt like a lifetime.
As a child Johnson dreamt of being ‘world king’, he would have to settle for being Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. His bullish personality and unfettered determination to break all rules ever imposed on him churned out a unique politician who has undoubtedly shaken up British politics. His infamous strategic move to back the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum propelled him to the highest office of all, winning the support of millions and reaching parts of the electorate no other Conservative politician could have through his brand of right-wing populism. The political chaos of Britain’s departure from the EU perhaps lent itself to a man who thrives better than anybody else in chaos and thus culminated in the Johnson-led government. However, as the government became more chaotic as the months progressed, its scandals became more shocking.
Other ministers were forced to begrudgingly tow the party line and, often embarrassingly, defend the mounting scandals in a collective effort of unity. The Johnson strategy of embracing every scandal could only work for so long, and finally forcing his ministers to defend his disregard of sexual assault allegations and knowingly promoting an alleged sex offender to a position of power was the straw that broke the camel’s back. A large number of his cabinet were not prepared to debase themselves any further and so Sajd Javid resigned as Health Secretary leading to a mass exodus from ministerial positions in one of the most dramatic 24 hours of Westminster soap opera. Even after all the theatre of resignations, Johnson unashamedly appeared in front of the House of Commons’ liaison committee and revealed yet another scandal where he admitted to meeting ex-KGB official Alexander Lebedev against advice without his security team in 2018, posing a serious security concern. This didn’t draw much traction in the news due to the scale of the collapse of the government, thereby sealing Johnson’s fate with his position clearly untenable.
The Parliamentary Conservative Party, fearful of a wipe out at the next general election, moved to oust Johnson and, in his own words, “when the herd moves, it moves.” Naturally, the contingency plans were drawn up and a large group of Tory MPs put themselves forward for a leadership contest. Johnson surely would have to leave immediately? No, he was allowed to remain as a caretaker Prime Minister until the new leader was selected, clinging onto power with a circus of a government banded together with any MP he could find that was contemptible enough to work for him. Furthermore, cementing Dominic Raab’s legacy as the Deputy PM so incompetent he couldn’t even step up and take the role in a time of parliamentary recess and in the knowledge that he was to be replaced in a few months, so scrutiny would have been at an all-time low. The ineptitude of Raab illustrates that the issues of the Conservative Party do not just stop with Johnson, and that this culture is entrenched within the party.
The leadership contest quickly descended into a mud-slinging contest rife with blue-on-blue attacks and contrived culture wars to appeal to the extremists of the party and the small minority of UKIP-style Conservatives. Initially, a broad range of candidates put themselves forward, opening up the idea that the race encompassed a spectrum of political directions the Tories would have to choose from. It soon became apparent that the only direction the party had any interest in going was to the right. Jeremy Hunt, tipped to be a so-called ‘moderate’ in the race, quickly doubled down on his right-wing credentials, citing his willingness to further the Rwanda policy of Johnson’s government which led to almost all of the candidates to unequivocally show their support for the policy. Suella Braverman, determined to showcase her brand of populism, decided to run on a platform of withdrawing the United Kingdom from the European Convention on Human Rights, allowing Tory Party members to envision a future where Britain was free from human rights and was subject to rights chosen by the executive. A risky move when in a political climate that recently has shown the world how American conservatives can limit women’s rights.
The list of hopefuls was soon whittled down to just five: Rishi Sunak, Kemi Badenoch, Liz Truss, Tom Tugendhat and Penny Mordaunt. Sunak, once the most popular British politician, by some distance, is now embroiled in scandal – a price to pay for getting too close to Boris Johnson in the eyes of the public perhaps. He was subject to a police inquiry over Partygate, was found to have broken the law in Downing Street and was subsequently fined. For balance, it must be stated that not all of his scandals are linked to the outgoing, lame-duck Prime Minister; for example, the issue of his wife being a non-domiciled resident and paying virtually no UK tax has not gone down well with voters and has played a big part in the collapse of his approval ratings. Despite all of this, Sunak still began the campaign strong and in pole position with the greatest backing of Tory MPs. However, as the contest progressed, Sunak has been subject to attacks from the right of the party; his stance on not immediately cutting taxation and previously overseeing the critical contraction of the economy and its slow growth as chancellor has been highlighted. Some have even gone on to accuse him of being a ‘Labour stooge’ and an undercover socialist in an attempt to terrify the Conservative membership. If this was true, the MP whose household net worth is believed to be in the region of 3 quarters of a billion pounds would bring a whole new meaning to champagne socialism.
Transgender issues are proving to be the next culture war for the Tories to weaponise. Kemi Badenoch, seemingly the most unknown candidate, has quickly moved to make a name for herself by latching onto this issue. She made a point of showing her disapproval of trans rights by highlighting the use of single sex bathrooms at her campaign launch, clearly focusing on the important issues during a cost-of-living crisis. Penny Mordaunt, the new favourite to win the entire race, was attacked for her previous support of trans rights, specifically by Suella Braverman who claimed she did not support women’s rights when attempting to replace the word ‘woman’ with ‘pregnant person’ on a previous bill. Mordaunt has since reneged on her previous championing of trans rights and has set out to prove to the right of the party that she is able to punch down on the chosen minority to oppress by distancing herself from transgender support. Mordaunt, initially seen by some as a one-nation Tory, has also broadened her appeal by playing into the nationalist wing of the party. Her campaign video heavily featured the Union Flag as well as her focus on being a former Royal Naval Reserve – claims which are being questioned by senior Royal Naval officers who have stated that she isn’t an active reservist and “has never qualified or been commissioned.”
Whilst culture wars may be a short-term tool to consolidate support among the relatively small pool of Conservative members, the wider electorate will be focusing on the performance of the next Prime Minister in helping to ease the cost-of-living crisis, in dealing with Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol, the Ukraine war, Covid and preventing further public sector strikes and disruption. These are just some of the major issues that affect the day-to-day lives of ordinary people up and down the country and they will be paying close attention to the government’s handling of the important issues if the Conservatives are going to overturn Labour’s current double-digit poll leads and win the next election.