Opinion

Boris Johnson’s failures as a leader are catching up with him as the UK political crisis intensifies

The resignations of Rishi Sunak and Sajid Javid are likely to mark the beginning of the end for Boris Johnson’s premiership. Westminster is agog with speculation as Johnson reels from this latest setback. Summer may have come but the Tory government is not feeling the sunshine. At a time when voters face a cost of living crisis, the need for measured leadership could not be greater. Instead, the chaos unfolding within Downing Street risks becoming a distraction from the larger issues.

Even Johnson’s most ardent supporters will have to concede that his authority has been severely dented. No prime minister can brush aside losing a chancellor and a health secretary in one evening. The resignation letters penned by both men embody a growing unease felt across the country. Sunak noted that the public expected the government to be conducted “properly, competently and seriously”, standards that Johnson had failed to live up to. He also alluded to policy differences with Johnson that became impossible to bridge. Javid felt that the government was no longer seen as “competent in acting in the national interest”. Ultimately, both felt that a change in direction under Johnson was not possible.

“Events, dear boy, events” famously quipped Harold Macmillan when asked about a statesman’s greatest challenge. So it has turned out to be for Johnson. The PM’s supporters may be forgiven for wondering how quickly the public mood has turned against the man who secured a landmark general election victory and got Brexit done. But in politics, perception matters. Allegations of an extravagant Downing Street redecoration tainted Johnson. Matters were then compounded by a well-documented culture of lockdown rule-breaking in Downing Street.

Local elections in early May led to the Tories suffering significant losses. That said, a no-confidence motion against Johnson within the party did not succeed. Technically, he cannot be removed for a year unless the party changes the rules. But it is instructive to note that 148 Tory MPs failed to back him. Theresa May had greater support and she stepped down within six months of winning a no-confidence motion. Two key by-election losses to Labor and the Liberal Democrats have also underlined voter anger.

The economic circumstances remain perilous. The conflict in Ukraine has pushed energy prices up by more than 50 per cent with fuel poverty a real concern. inflation is expected to touch 10 per cent this year — the highest in 30 years. The Office of Budget Responsibility has warned that real living standards can expect “their largest financial year fall on record”.

Where are the Tories headed? The answer seems to be rather confusing. A bid to court the working class Brexiteer voters has seen the party support greater taxation and spending policies. But the truth is that increased borrowing cannot be sustained forever. Nor is increasing taxation the answer. Incessant borrowing stands to pass debts on to the youth. And increasing taxation — even to support social care — risks choking off a recovery before it has begun. The irony is that fiscal conservatism and making the case for lower taxes — especially for the low paid — has all but been forgotten by a centre-right government. What is needed is not simply a change in leadership but a radical change in policy direction too.

What should the Tories look for in a reset then? First, restoring integrity at the core of government would be key to regaining public confidence. Second, championing economic freedom should be at the heart of any policy reboot. It is only through growth that a promise to “level up” forgotten areas of the country — the so called red wall — can be met. Importantly, the cost of transitioning to a green economy should not fall disproportionately on the least well-off. Alliances with like-minded democracies such as India will need to be cemented too.

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None of this will be easy. But if the Tories seek to restore political credibility, they will have to be bold. While Britain has a conservative administration, it lacks truly conservative policies that can promote transformative change. Johnson has not been able to implement a cohesive plan. Instead, a corrosive mistrust of politicians has been heard. It is clear that Britain needs fresh leadership. Only then will the promise of “taking back control” have a genuine chance of being redeemed.

The writer is a London-based lawyer and political commentator

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