UK: Johnson – the unpopular populist

Nigel Smith

The corrupt and incompetent premiership of Boris Johnson is at last drawing to a close. He has been forced to resign as leader of the Conservative Party, but at the time of writing, seems able to hold onto the job of Prime Minister until a successor is found, a process that could take up to three months. Johnson has been under pressure to go for months from an ever-increasing proportion of the parliamentary party and from plummeting popularity across the United Kingdom. The Conservatives don’t like a loser; and recent bye-election results have shown a massive swing in support away from the Conservatives, towards the Liberal Democrats. The so-called Red-Wall seats in the North, which were taken from Labour at the last election, also look likely to be lost by the Conservatives if Johnson were to stay in office. Working class voters are seeing through the record of a government based on lies and are turning against Johnson. This is despite the fact that, from the working class, there is no particular rise in support for a Labour Party led by Sir Keir Starmer, who they rightly characterise as Tory-light. It stems from disgust and contempt for Johnson and his ruthless clan of old Etonians. 

Johnson’s record

There have been so many problems with Johnson’s premiership that it would take a major article to describe them all. He has led a government with no strategic plan that has meandered recklessly across every area of government, making u-turn after u-turn and policy change after policy change to suit the populist agenda that Johnson mouthed during the election. The levelling-up mantra that Johnson spouted was an example of this, with no real intention of levelling anyone up, but instead of increasing the wealth and power of the corporate world and his acolytes.  The infrastructure projects trumpeted at the last election are nowhere to be seen and the NHS is in an ever-increasing death spiral, with Johnson’s government allowing more and more profit to be extracted from it by the private sector and little investment in staff and infrastructure.

In recent months Johnson has also been seen to lie to parliament especially in connection with the so-called party-gate scandal. It was clear that Johnson and his cronies – including Rishi Sunak, broke the law and partied while the rest of the country was living under the strictures of lockdown. It also became absolutely clear that Johnson had no remorse for this and that his sense of power and entitlement made him believe that, in truth, he and his tribe were entitled to behave differently from the rest of the people they govern. It illustrated the mentality of a class that historically has seen itself as better/superior than the people they govern with the most paternalistic and exploitative attitudes of almost any ruling class globally. Other scandals have followed, with Johnson supporting a colleague, Chris Pincher, accused of groping colleagues, in spite of over-whelming evidence of Pincher’s guilt over a period of years. Johnson is reported to have described this individual as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”, a shocking and obscene characterisation. He also supported Owen Patterson, who was rightly accused of breaking lobbying rules. This included pausing his suspension in order to set up a new committee of investigation. The mis-management of the Covid pandemic was largely covered up with the compliance of the media, Labour Party and the TUC and the mishandling of the economy throughout this government has been clouded by excuses and hype. The fact that Johnson has promoted the war in Ukraine and pressured the Ukrainian government not to look for a compromise with Russia, has led to increased suffering in Ukraine and among the poor of the UK alongside increased profits for corporations. 

Succession 

So, like a child clinging to his teddy bear, Johnson wants to cling onto the premiership for as long as is possible before his party is over and he can finally be put to sleep. How he can govern is a mystery, with over fifty MPs resigning from senior government positions including his chancellor? There have for example, been three education secretaries in three days. However, the Conservative Party seems to accept Johnson remaining until a successor is found, with many being unhappy about the situation but now getting involved in the process of finding a successor. The scramble for the Prime Minister’s job is on, with a whole host of MPs already declaring or expected to declare their candidacy. The current favourite to replace Johnson is Ben Wallace (defence secretary). But there are at least ten others who seem likely to put their snouts into the trough, including Rishi Sunak (ex-chancellor), Liz Truss (foreign secretary), Sajid Javid (ex-health secretary) and Jeremy Hunt who is a threat from the back benches. 

Burning need for an alternative

Whoever replaces him may govern and behave in a less shameful and embarrassing manner, but the hope of a better situation for working people coming out of this is not going to be realised. Because of Johnson’s lack of strategy, it was possible to challenge and reverse some of his excesses, but with neo-liberal politicians like Liz Truss circling in the wings, the situation for the working class could get even worse. The hope of a progressive Labour government is now a forlorn hope. We may get a Labour government or a Lib / Labour coalition government in 2023, but this would be a government as committed to neo-liberalism, as the Blair Labour government was.

At the current time, without a new party of the working class, the situation is grim. Jeremy Corbyn has no plans to attempt to set up a new party and the trades unions, with the exception of the RMT, via TUSC, are not moving in that direction. However, UNITE, under Sharron Graham is increasing its critique of Labour and a whole raft of unions is looking to ballot for strikes in the next few months. The economic situation has no solution and the consciousness of more and more people could be lifted if the left, the militant trades unions, and decent members of the Labour party united together in struggle. The coming industrial struggle could explode into an autumn of resistance, with the growing realisation that answers do not lie in looking to the current parliamentary parties, but are in the hands of workers themselves, through strikes, civil action, industrial action and the building a socialist political alternative. The grim reality facing the people of the UK, could prove to be the catalyst for a rapidly growing political alternative to the current status quo. There could be time to build this alternative in readiness for the 2023 elections, but only if key individuals, trades unions, and left groups fully commit to this, draw the lessons from past failures and initiate an open and democratic process involving all the forces willing to engage.

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