Boris Johnson’s fall confirms both the strength and the weakness of the British political system. Strength—Johnson tried to cling to office appealing to his “mandate from 14 million voters” in the December 2019 general election.
But in Britain prime ministers depend on the support of a majority of the House of Commons. This support is expressed through the cabinet. Johnson was the fourth prime minister of the neoliberal era to be brought down by a cabinet rebellion—like Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and Theresa May before him.
By comparison only three—John Major, Gordon Brown, and David Cameron—fell through losing popular votes. This system allows ruling parties to rid themselves comparatively easily of leaders who have become liabilities. And—despite his efforts to defy political gravity—it worked against Johnson.
He leaves behind him a shattered Tory party. Thatcher’s fall in 1990 created a lasting obsession with the European Union that culminated in the 2016 Brexit referendum. This brought down Cameron and gave Johnson his opportunity.
He overturned May for being too compromising with Brussels. To deliver the hard Brexit sought by the Tory right—and also by the European Commission—he purged the pro-European wing of the party.
This reduced the talent pool at the top of the Tory party, which helps to explain the bunch of clowns that are now running for the party leadership. Notice, however, that almost all are promising to cut taxes. This shows the continuing ideological hold of Thatcherism on Tory back-benchers—the fantasy that they are a party of “small government”.
But Johnson has taken the Tories a long way from Thatcherism. This is partly because he won the election by targeting the so-called “Red Wall”—ex-industrial, traditionally Labour seats in the north of England that voted Leave in 2016. The Tory MPs who won these constituencies have, for example, been a strong lobby for measures to address the cost of living crisis.
This crisis has come on the back on the emergency created by the Covid pandemic. Then-chancellor Rishi Sunak suspended the Thatcherite rule book, increasing public spending massively to stave off economic collapse. This was financed by the Bank of England creating money and lending to the government—a major crime according to neoliberal orthodoxy.
In his latest package in May, and under pressure from Johnson, Sunak continued in this vein. He allocated nearly £10 billion to help the poorest households with higher energy bills, financed by a windfall tax on oil, gas, and electricity companies. “Mr Sunak is engaging in some serious redistribution from rich to poor—albeit against a backdrop of rising inequality,” commented Paul Johnson of the Institute for Fiscal Studies.
This is an exaggeration, but it underlines the difficulties the Tories face. Under Johnson, the share of taxation in national income has risen sharply. It is projected to reach 36.3 percent in 2026-7, the highest level since the late 1940s.
This is anathema to most Tory backbenchers. In his efforts to hang onto office, Johnson was trying to ingratiate himself with them by promising to cut taxes. This seems to have been the issue that precipitated Sunak’s resignation. He is against financing tax cuts by higher borrowing. For the Tory rank and file the solution is to reduce public spending and shrink the state. Hence the promises of tax cuts in the leadership contest.
The problem is that this debate bears no relationship with reality. Capitalism in Britain and globally is grappling with an apparently endless series of emergencies—economic crisis, pandemic, war, soaring food and energy prices.
Who knows what’s coming next? This situation requires a bigger and stronger state, not the smaller and weaker one desired by the back benches. Johnson’s chaotic opportunism took the British state in the direction it needed to go.
The Tories are lucky that they face a clueless Labour opposition dominated by Blairites who are desperate to prove their respectability and lack of radicalism. Johnson’s removal has deprived them of the strongest argument there was for voting Labour. The Tories’ tradition of renewing themselves by decapitating unpopular leaders may work for them.
Crises are on the horizon