2019 07 Editorial – Boris Johnson our next PM?

Johnson: A Fearful Choice

Following their success in the elections to the European Parliament it was widely predicted that the Brexit party would win the parliamentary seat of Peterborough at the 6 June byelection. Alas, for Farage and his acolytes, it did not happen. In spite of the ambiguity of its position on Brexit in a constituency that voted 61% to leave, the jailing of the previous MP for lying to the police over a motoring offence, and the charge of antisemitism against the Labour candidate Lisa Forbes, Labour held onto Peterborough with a 683 majority over the Brexit party.

Labour’s 31% share of the vote was the lowest in a parliamentary byelection since 1918 on a turnout of 48%. But the Tories fared even worse, trailing third with a drop of 25% in their vote over the 2017 general election. Most of their lost votes went to the Brexit party, who won 29% of the vote, and who are seen as a real threat to the Tories historical monopoly of the conservative-inclined voter.

A key factor in Labour’s victory was its ability to call upon hundreds of volunteers in the weeks leading up to the election and on the day itself. Even the Brexit party paid tribute to this. But it seems that Brexit was not the sole concern of voters in Peterborough. Local issues, such as housing, education, insecure, low paid work, and cuts in local government services, also influenced the voters’ choice. Peterborough showed how Labour can fight and win on issues that people care about and which affect them deeply. It could also be said  that Corbyn’s “constructive ambiguity” over Brexit, much criticised by the media and his Labour parliamentary opponents, appears to have paid off, in Peterborough at least.

The result in Peterborough has badly dented the Tories hopes of winning back its supporters and thus its chances of victory at the next general election. But it is not only the Brexit party that they need to fear. A significant number of  Tory remain voters switched to the Liberal Democrats at the EU elections and it cannot be taken for granted that they will return to the fold. The Tory party as we know it is imploding before our eyes and many of its MPs fear for their seats at the next general election. That is why Boris Johnson leapt into a strong early lead, and held onto it, in the elections for a new party leader and Prime Minister. Tory backbenchers who are not normally Johnson supporters believe he can stop the rot, deliver a Tory victory, and save their seats.

The final choice to be put to the 160,000 Tory party members is either Johnson or Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, with Johnson the clear favourite to win, having gained the votes of more than half of Tory MPs. The grassroots members appear to regard him as the most likely candidate to win back Tory voters from the Brexit party and to scupper Labour’s prospects at the next general election.

Most of the Tory leadership candidates, including Johnson himself, said that their aim was to stop the ‘Marxist’ Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, forecasting disaster for Britain if that should happen. Corbyn is a left social democrat, but the use of the term ‘Marxist’ is used to frighten the voters many of whom, if they think at all about its meaning, associate it with despotic rule and a centrally planned economy. Compared to this concocted nightmare scene, we are led to believe that the last nine years of a ‘freedom loving’ Tory government have been an overwhelming political and economic success, from which everyone has benefitted and for which they should be eternally grateful.

Johnson’s campaign brazenly included bribes to the Tory grassroots, the most notable of which was a promise to raise the higher tax rate of 40% to be paid from a salary of £50,000 to £80,000. This would mean an income increase of £500 per month for many Tory members. The fact that this would cost £9.6bn a year and be paid for by raiding the Chancellor’s contingency fund, was not referred to. He also promised an extra £5,000 per secondary school pupil in England, although he had never before taken the slightest interest in education, unless we include his voting for substantial real terms cuts in spending on education since 2010.

His tenure as London Mayor is generally considered to have been a failure and yet he unashamedly claimed credit for a number of schemes which his predecessor Ken Livingstone had initiated. These included the so-called Boris bikes and the staging of the 2012 Olympic games. The £43 million loss on the garden bridge across the Thames, the costly purchase of unused water cannons, and his support for the construction of luxury accommodation for wealthy foreigners at the expense of affordable homes for London’s poor, have been largely ignored. As London Mayor he sang the praises of the EU, welcoming the single market and migrant labour from Europe. A position he has since deserted.

Johnson was a gaffe-prone Foreign Secretary, displaying his ignorance of and prejudice towards other cultures. He insulted Muslim women, liking those who wear the burqa to letterboxes and bank robbers.  And he referred to black African children as piccaninnies with watermelon smiles. He apologised for these ‘gaffes’ but insisted that he would continue to speak plainly! Senior civil servants and diplomats became exasperated by his behaviour and language at home and abroad. Theresa May was urged to sack him but lacked the stomach to do so. With pressure on him building he resigned as Foreign Secretary, citing his opposition to the Brexit agreement reached at Chequers, which he then later supported in Parliament.

Having supported the austerity measures which impacted most negatively on working class communities, and with the division in the country exacerbated by the EU referendum result,  bringing the country back together was a major theme of all the candidates. However, the televised debates gave little clue of what any one of them would do to achieve this. Johnson avoided the first of the debates and was his usual evasive self in the second. Should Johnson become party leader and Prime Minister he will need the confidence and support of parliament to govern. Theresa May lost that. It’s an open question whether Johnson can succeed where May failed.

Johnson wants to leave the EU with a deal  by the 31 October, but is prepared to leave without one. He is unclear as to how a deal different to that of Theresa May’s can be acceptable to the EU. The EU have said that there will be no reopening of the negotiations. So does Johnson have a magic elixir not possessed by Theresa May? If, as expected, he is elected by party members, we will know soon enough.

Where does all this leave Labour? In recent weeks, Deputy Leader Tom Watson has been urging the party to back a second referendum, appearing to stake his political career on it. Corbyn on the other hand has blown hot and cold on the issue. At first seeming to support what he calls a public vote on any deal, and then backpeddling at a fractious meeting of the parliamentary Labour party on 19 June. As a longtime Eurosceptic he is clearly having difficulty changing his position.

This magazine believes that Labour has a moral duty to respect the result of the 2016 referendum, as it promised in its 2017 general election manifesto. We have stated in previous issues that a second referendum would exacerbate the divisions in society. It would not bring the country back together. We see no reason to change our position.