I answer the question posed in the title by returning to what I wrote on my blog when Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson became Prime Minister in 2019:
Make no mistake, Boris Johnson has talent. He knows how to make a stirring speech and can tap into people’s hopes and fears as a politicianMy blog post written shortly after Johnson became UK Prime Minister
Now one might think being the Prime Ministers of the worlds fifth-largest economy requires a great deal more than this, and indeed it does. It requires a mixture of luck, animal cunning and being able to use both to maximum effect.
My last post in December outlined some of the issues the Conservative Government in the UK had been having in the latter half of 2021. Yet the position still seemed quite recoverable, indeed only a few months earlier, the former Red Wall constituency of Hartlepool had been won by the Conservatives. Local Elections in May 2021 also were very positive for the Tories. Things were bad by the end of 2021, very bad in fact, but it still did not seem fatal.
2022 was not the start of the year the government were hoping for. Despite repeated denials that there was party’s at 10 Downing Street during the lockdown, further evidence emerged that there were, including a photo showing the Prime Minister with staff sitting in the garden at 10 Downing Street having “a work meeting” where there was wine and cheese in May 2020, when social gatherings were illegal in the UK. This was at a time when people could not visit dying loved ones and the public were told not to socialise in this way.
The investigation by Civil Servant Sue Gray found that there were “failures of leadership and judgment by different parts of Number 10 and the Cabinet Office” in allowing these events to occur, and then a number of these events are now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police. None of this was made better by the Prime Minister’s response that nobody had warned him that these parties were against the rules, rules that he had announced as Prime Minister in March 2020.
Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has said that Johnson broke the rules by holding these parties and believes he should resign. Others close to the Conservative Party including financial donors have also called on him to go.
As Conservative polling takes a hit and MPs get increasingly restless, it is still a surprise to many that Johnson stays on. Indeed most other PM’s would have resigned by now. So why does Boris Johnson stay on and why do the Conservatives let him. For Johnson, he knows if he leaves office now, he’ll likely never return. Having only served in the role just over two and a half years and most of that time leading (badly) during a pandemic, he has to try and stay on. But why on earth do the Conservative Party let him? Because despite everything, including the quite serious long term damage to the reputation of the party and indeed of the United Kingdom, he is probably still their best chance of winning an election.
Boris Johnson does not play by the normal political rules. Many claim Johnson uses the Trump playbook, and his election outcome in 2019 certainly benefited from Trump’s intervention which helped get the Brexit Party not to stand against the Conservatives in crucial leave voting constituencies, specifically the so-called Red-Wall. Yet Johnson plays by his own rules, which include fast and loose morals, including talk of beating up journalists. He has a level of confidence that has helped him get away with things other politicians simply would not. His clown reputation and building the brand “Boris”, the clown who got stuck on a zip wire at the 2012 London Olympics during his time as Mayor.
Johnson won the London Mayoralty by seeing an opportunity, specifically that London voters were tired of Ken Livingston. Further, the clown reputation meant Johnson’s opponents underestimated him in not just one but two London Government elections.
His ascent to the Conservative leadership was far from smooth, with his first attempt in 2016 being undermined by Michael Gove. His record as Foreign Secretary was also far from successful, especially regarding the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe issue. Yet his stance on Brexit, specifically undermining Theresa May’s attempts to negotiate a withdrawal agreement, paid off.
He proved ruthless in his first few weeks as the leader, withdrawing the Tory whip from 21 MP Conservative MPs who would not back his Brexit plan, including his own brother. His decision to prorogue parliament when he could not get MPs to agree to a general election ultimately worked for him. Despite losing legal challenges to this prorogation, eventually, he got MPs to agree to an early election, winning the best result for the Conservative Party since 1983.
His victory in 2019 was due to two things, tapping into the hopes and fears of those frustrated by attempts to thwart Brexit and a deeply divided opposition. His performances as an orator during this campaign were far from his best work, and despite arguable receiving fairly favourable press coverage during the campaign, felt the need to hide in a fridge to avoid doing a media interview days before the election. Those who in recent weeks, having previously supported Boris Johnson, now believe he is not fit to be prime minister seem to have only just worked out what he is really like when the signs have been there from the start.
One of Johnson’s strengths throughout his career has been his ability to bring people in that can carry him. Dominic Cummings, loathsome as many may find him, was a driving force behind the Brexit campaign in 2016 and the 2019 Conservative election victory. There were of course plenty of others, including some who have been with him since he was mayor of London who has recently quit. The problem with being an advisor or a ‘back roomer’, is that ultimately the candidate will not always do what you wish they would. It is immensely frustrating to feel you are the brain behind the power, yet never to get credit, and worse to have your clever strategy ignored.
The other issue Johnson faces is that despite his show of strength, for better or for worse, in getting Brexit done, he is not ideologically in step with much of the traditional Tory base. This in part explains his appeal to voters who traditionally have not voted Tory, certainly, this proved the case both in London and in the 2019 election. For many Conservatives, winning a strong majority and remaining in power was worth the compromise, even if it meant accepting a level of what the late Margaret Thatcher would have decried as corporatist policy. The recent decision to increase National Insurance has certainly tested the tolerance of many Conservatives who subscribe to the Thatcherite philosophy of low taxation and small government.
As I have written earlier, social care has been a blight on the political landscape and one that neither Labour nor Conservative governments have adequately addressed. With demand for social care increasing, governments have been under pressure to increase funding. Both Blair’s New Labour and Cameron’s Conservative Governments lacked the political courage to increase taxes to pay for social care. Whilst there are strong arguments against the way the government have decided to increase taxes, specifically that rather than an across the board increase to National Insurance there were other options whereby the heaviest burden would have fallen on those best placed to contribute, nonetheless, an increase in taxation to pay for social care was inevitable. Any serious analysis of relying on the private sector and savings to address this need show this is not viable.
Is it a coincidence that the announcement of the National Insurance increase in September 2021 happened just before the government and in particular Boris Johnson started having problems? It would be a mistake to think that the open civil war within the Conservatives under Theresa May was only about Brexit or that the 2019 election result put these to bed. It is quite clear that the stories of lockdown parties and other scandals have been disclosed by people within the government. Plenty of Tory MPs would be quite happy to see Johnson fall or to apply maximum pressure on him so he backs down on the National Insurance increase. Boris Johnson may not be a Thatcherite ideologically, but so far it does seem he is not for turning and understands that doing so would ultimately be more harmful.
For small-government laissez-faire Tories, a leadership challenge may not serve them well. Were Johnson to go, the likely successor would be Rushi Sunak who talks free market but in practice has been one of the most interventionist Chancellors in modern times during the COVID-19 crisis. It is unlikely that Sunak as PM would reverse the National Insurance increase, given he has been its main advocate thus far. The rights favoured candidate, Liz Truss, is simply not credible.
Boris Johnson remains Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He does so, for now, due to the lack of a strong viable alternative within the Conservatives. Despite everything, he is still the leader most likely to help the party regain support, despite him now being severely damaged. Some in the Conservatives may be thinking it best to leave him in place at a time when the cost of living is increasing significantly when the May Council elections will likely not be good for the Conservatives (the particular boroughs having elections this year are less favourable to the Tories, but a backlash to “party gate” will likely play a role) and the National Insurance increase. Better to find a new leader nearer to the election. But this is a risky strategy, as the Prime Minister has damaged not just his reputation, but that of the Conservatives and the government he leads. His attempts at statesmanship during the Ukraine crisis may have helped him a little, but his reputation on the global stage is also tarnished by what has happened at home.
Boris Johnson, should not on balance still be Prime Minister and in the long term, the Conservatives risk being severely punished for not removing him. But despite everything, he remains in post and still, we cannot write him off.