In the wake of Boris Johnson’s sensational fall from power last week, Matthew Oulton analyses why a new Prime Minister presents an opportunity for Labour to win the next election.
Last week, Boris Johnson was talking about going on into the 2030s. Now he’s resigned as Prime Minister, with what remained as his legacy in tatters. Even his key achievement - Brexit - is a damaging mess, with the settlement in Northern Ireland in desperate need of repair. As one calamitous leader departs, it’s natural to worry that things will get tougher for Labour now. On the contrary, not only is the country rid of a harmful leader, Labour now have a clear shot at serious strategic dismemberment of the Conservative Party. The 2019 electoral coalition, spearheaded by a man who is soon to be evicted, cannot be maintained by another leader.
What’s next for Labour, then?
A lot of focus at the moment is on the scandals that pushed Johnson out of number 10. These were horrendous, and will doubtless feature in the next General Election. However, that is not the debate that will decide the next election.
Sure, some people might be tarred by a Johnson-covered brush, but most won’t. Zahawi, who has debased himself by accepting a promotion, and Sunak, who also received a fixed penalty notice, will doubtless face some condemnation over their conduct. In the same way as Starmer faces little blame for his time working for Corbyn, however, many other cabinet ministers will survive unscathed. The biggest question, therefore, for Labour, is less exciting.
Where will they sit politically?
After all, Johnsonism, as much as it has existed, has been a curious mix for a Conservative. He’s melded culture war social values, hawkish defence, with relatively interventionist domestic economic policy. Such a set of values was crucial in winning the seats Johnson won in 2019, but now seems unlikely to be accepted by the Conservative Parliamentary Party. We saw in recent weeks promises of tax cuts and other meat to the Tory base as Johnson sought to bed in in Number 10, like an unwanted termite infestation that could not be expunged. That effort failed, but expect similar strategies to be adopted by the runners and riders in the upcoming leadership election.
Far from the greatest possible advantage to Labour being a Johnson ally, tainted by his unscrupulous behaviour, the best thing we can hope for is a true-blue Thatcherite. In order to win a leadership election, Sunak, Javid, Truss, or any of the other serious contenders will need to tack to the right, and as a result will become easier opponents. ‘Levelling up’ will doubtless be forgotten, replaced by increasingly hardline rhetoric on taxes, spending, and immigration. We should expect a return of the ‘nasty party’ in full force, with all the anti-single parent and anti-LGBT coattails. That Tory Party cannot defeat Starmer’s progressive Labour Party.
Why would they turn that way, then?
Because that’s what the Tory selectorate will desire.
In addition to trying to paint all the contenders as hopelessly tarnished by their time in Johnson’s government, therefore, Labour also need to play up the differences between the outgoing and incoming PMs. In the next election, as well as the sense that the Tories are corrupt liars, we also need to highlight that they have thrown aside the formula that won in 2019. We should, almost regardless of who they elect, paint the next Tory leader as both a corrupt enabler of Johnson, and a hard right ideologue. Not what the electorate voted for in 2019.
On levelling up specifically, we should adopt an ‘heir to Blair’-style strategy, in which Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, and Lisa Nandy paint themselves as the natural inheritors of the Levelling Up project. Since it seems certain that Gove and Johnson’s agenda will be disregarded, we can talk positively about it, and show that the Toriestories have abandoned their levelling up promises. The focus will now naturally move to where Tory members are, predominantly affluent parts of the country such as the South-East, and not where swing voters are. That is a real chance for us.
As one Tory civil war ends, the country’s long national nightmare of a crook in Downing Street is coming to an end too. However, another battle is beginning. Expect carnage, trouble from the backbenches, and a lurch to the unelectable. If Labour stick out our strategy, neutralising the Tories on defence and the economy so we can hammer them on public services in the election, we can convert this drama into a strong win. We can, of course, still lose - Labour has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory countless times before. Furthermore, the last two times an internal Conservative battle made space for a Labour Government - after the EU referendum and in 2019 - we were unable to take advantage. But this time, with a credible government-in-waiting can be different.
The Conservative Party will likely not truly recover from this incident for a generation. As with the defenestration of Thatcher, a betrayal narrative will be brewing. Seeking to win among the Tory Party, the country may well be forgotten. If Labour are disciplined, and do not forget that power lies in the hands of the public, not the Labour membership, we can sweep back to power.
Johnson’s departure is not a threat to Labour, but the greatest chance we’ve had in a generation.
Matt is the Vice-Chair of the Economy and Finance Network. He is a recent graduate in Economics, soon to begin postgraduate study. He’s from Merseyside, Labour’s true heartland, and writes frequently on a range of economic and political issues.
His interests in Economics focus on microeconomic theory and Public Policy, and his politics are characterised by a near-pathological obsession with returning Labour to government. He tweets at @matthewoulton.