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Commentary: Surviving no-confidence vote leaves a weakened Boris Johnson one last chance

UK's Boris Johnson has had three years to prove the great campaigner can be an effective prime minister. Instead, he has shown himself as distracted, chaotic, self-serving and dishonest after "partygate", says the Financial Times' Robert Shrimsley.

Commentary: Surviving no-confidence vote leaves a weakened Boris Johnson one last chance

Boris Johnson was fined for attending one of the parties but refuses to resign. (Photo: AFP/Daniel LEAL)

LONDON: An old political joke tells the story of a prime minister taken ill and being visited in hospital by his deputy. “The cabinet has instructed me to send you their very best wishes and hopes for a speedy recovery,” says his friend. “And that the motion was passed by 13 votes to 12.” 

Boris Johnson will empathise with that mythical leader after surviving a no-confidence vote which saw more than 40 per cent of his own Members of Parliament (MPs) voting to remove him.

This was not a revolt over ideology. The rebels covered the party’s political spectrum. It was instead a very personal rebuff over Johnson’s character flaws and the failings of leadership which have seen his own interests prioritised over all other issues. 

There have also been the countless demands for loyalty on political positions abandoned a week later a trait which did not end with his third Downing Street “reset”, as shown by last month’s windfall tax retreat. Primarily, this was about whether his MPs thought his position is recoverable with voters.

A HOLLOW VICTORY

The result was a hollow victory that leaves Johnson terribly weakened. He will attempt to move the story on with initiatives and promises to focus on the country’s priorities, primarily on the cost of living.

The difficulty now, as pollsters note, is that the public mind is now so clear on his faults that even good ideas are tainted by association with him. Furthermore, the narrowness of his win will not end the debilitating plots, so he will remain fixated on his own survival.

Allies defend Johnson as a man who “gets the big calls right”. He broke the Brexit deadlock. He has been right on Ukraine and the public is fairly satisfied with his handling of the pandemic. But, as his chief of staff Steve Barclay noted, there is no gratitude in politics. The next election will be decided “on who offers the best vision for the future, not on prior mistakes or successes”.

It will, in any case, be hard for Johnson to move on. He faces by-election defeats later this month, another “partygate” investigation and the public inquiry into the pandemic. Above all of this hangs a sense of economic and social malaise. Much is due to factors beyond his control, but the public wants a government with solutions, not excuses.

FALLOUT FROM THE PURSUIT OF BREXIT

And this is the key problem. Voters are beginning to see a country that is not functioning very well. One can add air travel chaos and looming rail strikes to the public service backlogs, rising inflation, limited housebuilding and the high costs of childcare, which leave young parents struggling to justify working.

Then throw in the strategic confusion which leaves a nation that declares itself a magnet for overseas investment relentlessly raising business taxes.

Not all problems can be blamed on others. In the fallout from the Brexit feud over the Northern Ireland protocol, the United Kingdom looks set to leave the world’s biggest scientific research programme, the €95 billion (US$102 billion) Horizon Fund, one of the very few European Union projects the government fought to stay within. 

This is part of a pattern. From pharmaceuticals to financial services, science to creative industries, the sectors that the UK might claim to be world-leading are sacrificed to the purism of Brexit.

The worry will be that those around him see issues like the protocol as part of a wider survival strategy of seeking ever sharper political divides. Allies are already urging revenge reshuffles and the dilution of Johnson’s net zero plans.

And yet if one thinks back to his 2019 election victory, Johnson won by offering an end to division. The pledge was not merely to “get Brexit done” but to do it so the nation could focus on other priorities. His victory reflected fatigue with conflict as much as enthusiasm for Brexit. He could also learn from the weekend’s jubilee festivities. Voters crave unity not polarisation.

Boris Johnson speaks in Parliament. (Photo: UK PARLIAMENT/AFP/JESSICA TAYLOR)

His only hope is to see that his own interests are aligned with the country’s. The nation needs a government that seems able to get things working, that can restore shattered public services, has a cogent plan for fighting inflation as well as alleviating its impact, and a strategy for delivering its energy security goals rather than merely a plan for announcing them.

If fighting inflation requires belt-tightening, he needs to be upfront in arguing for it. If housebuilding demands unpopular planning reform, he must deliver it. If new nuclear power stations are needed, building work needs to start before the election. Ministers talk, correctly, of the need for public service reform, but there is little sign of it.

COULD JOHNSON SEE A SECOND CHALLENGE AND SURVIVE?

Yet Johnson’s lack of ideological underpinnings and his quest for popularity, a desire intensified by job insecurity, are preventing him from leading when hard decisions are needed. This, as much as the rule-breaking, is the character deficiency that most undermines him.

Johnson has had three years to prove the great campaigner can be an effective prime minister. Instead, he has shown himself as distracted, chaotic, weak, self-serving, dishonest and addicted to government by headline. As he fought to save his leadership, what new measure did he wave before his party? A pledge on restoring imperial measurements.

He now has one, possibly final, chance to show he is the man all evidence suggests he isn’t. He will not survive a second challenge and there is still time for one. 

For he is swimming now against a tide in his own party which seems to have got the message that for all his previous campaigning brilliance, he is no longer the man who can sell that vision for the future that voters will demand.

Source: Financial Times/geh
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