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CWA # 841, 26 November 2022

NIAS Europe Studies
Boris Johnson exits: The Unravelling of UK leadership in crisis

  Sourina Bej

With Boris Johnson stepping down as the party leader, the political conservatives face internal divisions to elect the next prime minister of the United Kingdom. Three questions contend: what are the political consequences after Johnson’s exit? how will the conservatives regain public trust? Will the new leader bridge the UK’s political divisions? 

On 07 July, another prime minister in the UKbites the dust. It was not the tussle over “getting Brexit done” like his predecessor Theresa May, rather in disrespecting one’s code of political conduct, that prime minister Boris Johnson stepped down as party leader. He will however continue as the prime minister till a new leader is elected from within the conservative party. The outgoing leader said, “To you the British public... I want you to know how sad I am to be giving up the best job in the world. But them’s the breaks.” In a bit of a sleepless gripping political drama for Johnson, it is the last 48 hours, 44 cabinet resignations and one sacking that determined the resignation. A month ago, the pushout of Johnson started after controversies over Downing Street parties breaking the COVID-19 protocol tainted the party’s rules on public accountability. The Tory MPs called a confidence vote in the prime minister, which he won, yet 41 per cent of parliamentary Tories wanted him out. Under party rules, his win stalled the resignation for 12 months, thus setting the ball rolling for cabinet resignations.

Unboxing the end of Boris Johnson
The political editor of the Guardian, Heather Stewart summarise the essence behind Johnson’s exit in a line: “Boris Johnson’s unrepentant resignation speech was delivered with trademark bullishness.” Such is the bitterness against Boris Johnson, once revered as the “Tory man” taking conservatives through their biggest win in 2019. What changed and made the party pull the rug from under Boris Johnson?

First, in courting scandals, Partygate merely provided a plausible reason for the party to disassociate from Johnson. After Sue Gray’s report on the 10 Downing Street pandemic parties, the prime minister was fined, he lost a string of byelections and appointed an alleged sexual assaulter as his deputy chief whip which appalled his own ministers who backed him in 2019. In the three years in office, Johnson’s conduct on misleading the press, lying to his own party members with an unapologetic hint, became a crucial violation of party, political and public code of conduct. With Johnson, there was no rest to the threat of scandals: whether it was his friendship with Lord Lebedev, a Russian oligarch or bigger than public office personal relationship with the businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri.

Second, the conservative party’s losing political ground. What the Johnson’s scandals did to the party was more than an image dissolution rather it incapacitated the party machinery from looking into crucial issues such economic inequalities and retaining public mandate. Four prime ministers in six years: the speed with which the conservative party replaced and elected its leaders, raises questions on the stability off the party machinery itself. “Getting Brexit done” had figuratively impaired the Tory consensus and the political trust was further eroding when Boris Johnson took a hardline approach with a unilateral offsetting of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Clear evidence that party had been relying more on one leader over its own mandate emerged through the electoral loss in Devon. One of the strong argument among many Tory MPs for getting rid of Johnson is his unpopularity, yet it could also be argued that underneath a self-sabotaging leader, conservatives has also subterfuged their lack of new vision for policy change.

Last, lack of policy vision and dwindling public opinion could be observed in the post Brexit realities when inflation, food shortages and healthcare crisis emerged much before the war pushed the energy prices throughout Europe. The only big economic measures from the party was in the last few months after former chancellor to the exchequer, Rishi Sunak committed EUR15 billion. Some of the party’s ideas to cut the cost of living such as windfall tax had been proposed by the labour party before. The Brexit had brought back queues, and wastage of harvest leading voters to target their anger at the leader representing the party.

Troubled political landscape ahead
The new leader of the conservative party will not only have to provide an alternative to the party but also to the people and the region itself. Starting with an introspection of the party pathways, conservatives will have to bring back the Number 10 operation with full political trust. For the new leader, the support of the backbencher committee, accountability in the PMQ sessions and honest interaction with the press could probably salvage the inner rebellion and the Conservative’s fear of a rout in the local elections. Secondly, getting Brexit done just not in rhetoric will be a harder negotiating path yet to be foreseen. The Northern Ireland protocol bill could have had sabotaged the Good Friday agreement, but the questions that still remains is how to bring the electoral representation back in the province? With Boris Johnson still as the prime minister and a vivid breakdown of the party trust, the next six weeks will be a crucial test for democratic values in the Westminister.


About the author
Sourina Bej is a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of South Asian Studies, Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn, Germany.

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