By Alex Callinicos
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2789

Boris Johnson’s problems go deeper than parties

The Downing Street scandals must make Tory MPs wonder whether Johnson has served his purpose  
Issue 2789
Boris Johnson leans over his desk

Boris Johnson

Anyone who thought the misgovernment of the pandemic couldn’t get worse has been proved wrong. 

Life and death decisions—there were 1,023 deaths due to Covid-19 in the first week of January—are now being dictated by whatever Boris Johnson thinks is necessary for his survival.
So schools have been told to stop requiring face masks, even though Omicron is tearing through them, to appease the Covid-sceptics on the Tory backbenches and in the cabinet.
It makes one’s head spin when one turns from this horror to the details of why Johnson is in such trouble. But this doesn’t mean that there’s nothing significant at stake. 
Brexit has left British capitalism at a strategic impasse. Johnson achieved it on the basis of a highly contradictory economic programme. On the one hand, he argued that breaking with the European Union (EU) would allow “Global Britain” to become a deregulated free market paradise.
On the other hand, he promised “levelling up” to the “Red Wall”—the Leave-voting ex-Labour seats in the north and the midlands that tilted Tory in December 2019.
These promises remain unfulfilled. Before she became foreign secretary, Liz Truss negotiated trade deals with countries outside Europe.
But their impact is trivial compared with the disruption that Brexit has brought to trade with Britain’s most important market in the EU.
Meanwhile, levelling up means reducing the economic gap between London and south east England and other regions, especially in the north. 
But this gap became a gulf thanks to Thatcherism. The large-scale closure of manufacturing industry in the 1980s and early 1990s devastated the north.
Meanwhile, while the “Big Bang” of 1986 launched the City of London’s ascent to the leading international financial centre.
This left the north heavily dependent on the public sector. New Labour was content to keep the state spending tap flowing, partly for obvious electoral reasons. 
But when the Tory-Liberal coalition came to office in 2010 it launched austerity, supposedly to pay for the rescue of the banks after the financial crash of 2007-8.
The ex-industrial regions were hit hard by this squeeze, which helps to explain why they voted Leave in 2016.
Johnson promised an end to austerity when he became prime minister. But the logic of “Global Britain” is more deregulation and privatisation. In a certain sense the pandemic allowed him to wriggle round this dilemma. 
That’s because it demanded a huge increase in public spending, financed by the Bank of England creating money and lending it to the government.
But the Thatcherite wing of the cabinet, headed by chancellor of the exchequer Rishi Sunak, don’t like this. They blame the rise in inflation—5.4 percent in December, the highest level since 1992—on the extra spending.  
Sunak has sought to limit the rise in government debt by raising taxes to their largest share of national income since the late 1940s.
Brexit marked a huge triumph for the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative party. They had long demanded breaking with the EU—and Johnson purged many pro-European Tories.
The problem is they achieved this thanks to a politician who was willing to borrow from the far right, campaigning against the establishment, and distancing himself from neoliberalism.
Many Tory MPs were very unhappy with Johnson’s readiness to tax and spend. 
The Downing Street scandals must make them wonder whether he has served his purpose.  
In a Telegraph article that was supposed to be a defence of Johnson, the Brexiteer ex-MEP Daniel Hannan hinted at this.
He argued that “reduced living standards will be the central fact of our politics for the rest of this Parliament”, which the Tories can only overcome through “meaningful deregulation. 
“Many Conservative MPs ask each other whether these things can happen as their party is currently led and configured.”
If a lot of Tories are deluding themselves that another dose of Thatcherism could revive the economy and keep hold of the Red Wall seats, then dumping Johnson definitely won’t end their crisis.

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