British Politics

Coup Talk in the Tory Party And Labour’s Great Challenge

While Tory backbenchers are reportedly plotting Boris’s downfall, Starmer is trying to position himself as a competent alternative. But would Labour even be ready for a general election?  

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York before meeting with Amazon Executive chairman, Jeff Bezos during the United Nations General Assembly in December 21, 2021 – PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

After a disastrous month battling inner-party opposition over the government’s Covid-measures, the infamous 2020 lockdown bash at No 10 and a lost by-election in a formerly safe blue seat, there is a growing belief among Westminster insiders that Boris Johnson’s premiership will end prematurely in a Tory backbench-coup against their own party leader. This wild dream of dethroning an embatted Prime Minister has created a motley cross-ideological front that includes the Labour Party, parts of the Conservative Party, Dominic Cummings and most of the established media outlets. In the meantime, Johnson, who knows his classics, must appreciate the Caesarian vibes surrounding the many intrigues being spun to politically knife him. 

First, there is Dominic Cummings who has been calling for the PM’s downfall for almost a year now and who partly seems to be driven by revenge for his forced departure in November 2020. Through his Twitter and Substack, he has leaked juicy details from the halls of power that have gradually undermined Johnson’s position in his party and the country.

Cummings is, as even his critics will have to admit, a brilliant, but also extremely ambivalent political operator who while casting himself as an anti-political techno-libertarian actually – deeply and earnestly – seems to believe in the ability of Whitehall bureaucrats to engineer historic change; if only they were better trained in the natural sciences, coding and mathematics that is and fewer graduates of the humanities. He has famously long argued for an overhaul of the Westminster ‘blob’ and its replacement with a system in which scientific expertise will rise above political mediocrity, ministerial lethargy, and the ‘pundit babble’ that ‘Dom’ – quite correctly –  sees concentrated in SW1. Yet, while both would hate to admit it, ‘the blob’ and Cummings think strikingly alike in their obsessions with competence and professional leadership. Thus, Sir Keir Starmer has sought to present himself to the public as a more capable, serious, and focused leader than Johnson could ever be. Consequently, Labour’s main attack line has been to argue somewhat schoolmasterly that ‘the joke isn’t funny anymore’. On the face of it, this is a sound, if rather dorky and therefore quintessentially Starmerian strategy which nonetheless makes sense from a purely political standpoint. Labour can marshal cross-bench discontent, as well as the anger of pundits across the ideological spectrum and easily point to the blatant hypocrisy of ordering the nation into lockdowns while having merry get-togethers in Downing Street. However, what motivates the Labour Party to seek Johson’s downfall is not altogether clear, as whoever will succeed him (be they Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or Dominic Raab) will surely prove a much more competent, cunning and ruthless Tory leader than the PM. On the other hand, no other Tory might be capable of pulling off a similar victory as Johnson did in 2019 when he single-handledly reconfigured Britain’s electoral map by appealing to voters who had never voted Conservative before.

Transcending party politics, the PM’s popularity rested on a holy trinity of performative Britishness that combines buffoonish Wodehousian charm, Churchillian cosplay and the chummy student politics of the Oxford Union. Added to this are a sense of self-deprecating irony and comic timing that is unparalleled in current British politics and which connects with large swathes of the country who still find ‘the joke’ very funny. Yet, in a strange, loopy way, Johnson was also the perfect avatar and liquidator of a final phase of imperial self-delusion which had taken deep roots in the public and particularly the conservative psyche after the actual Empire had been lost in the last century.

By having voted for Brexit, Britons, on some level, have effectively assured that their country is not a first-rate power anymore and is unlikely to be one again in their lifetimes, no matter how many trade deals are secured by Liz Truss or how many warships are being sent to the hallowed waters of the Indo-Pacific region. Already, as The Economist has calculated, the economic costs of Brexit are painfully felt in declining imports and exports and a steadily increasing geopolitical power-imbalance between London and Brussels. Ironically, in choosing to leave the EU, the United Kingdom has, at last, become a normal post-Imperial European country: like Austria with nukes and a monarch who was a teenager when Neville Chamberlain was Prime Minister. A country in which the most important institutions of the state – a scandal-ridden police force, an insufficiently equipped Army and an underfunded NHS are at best operational, but usually overwhelmed and failing in action. This new normal of managed mediocrity marks the end of a long neoliberal era that began throughout the West after the end of the Second World War and which relied on technocracy, the rule of both elected and unelected elites, globalisation, financialisation and the primacy of grand foreign policy over domestic affairs. This system of global governance obtained popular support through a combination of high public debts, low-interest rates and cheap, often forced labour in the developing world but came to a catastrophic end in the Great Recession of 2008, after which it experienced a dead cat pounce in a series of highly educated and capable, but ultimately failed centrist leaders, such as David Cameron, Barack Obama and Angela Merkel. Frustrated by neoliberal ‘competence’, in the UK and US the left-behind victims of deindustrialisation in the North of England and the American Rust Belt instead chose to be entertained in style by leaders who speak their language and at least rhetorically seem to acknowledge and understand their woes, dreams and ambitions. The Conservatives’ levelling-up agenda combined with a push for renewable energy pursued by the government is a positive, election-winning sign of a domestic reorientation that could have easily been pursued by a Labour-led cabinet.

To beat the Tories, the Left would have to offer a compelling leader that would be capable of tapping into the rich, multiracial well of British working-class culture, lifestyle and often subversive, politically incorrect dirtbag humour and, like the Social Democrats in Germany recently did so successfully at the Bundestag elections, propose a simple, realistic program of increasing the minimum wage to 15£ an hour, widening public housing and lowering the state pension age to 63, while also increasing taxes on multinational corporations and on financial transactions. Although it has been one of Labour’s greatest strategic mistakes to leave patriotism to the Right and ridicule working people for their love of country, it would be a fool’s game to seek to redefine the party as ‘patriotic’, as Starmer is currently attempting. The Tories have been masters at this game for decades and it will cost the party dearly should it waste time and money in trying to appear more loyal to Queen and Country than the Conservatives. Instead, the party should aim to rebuild itself around the modern workplace which is still the space where at least something resembling class consciousness is born in the simple solidarity among colleagues and where it can most effectively improve ordinary people’s lives across the country by working together with unions in improving employees’ bargaining rights, health & safety conditions and hourly wages. However, for these vital changes in strategy to happen, the party would have to abandon its silly, self-defeating identity politics and language policing and shift their attention away from liberal, middle-class students who currently represent Labour’s base to actual, working people: the Amazon warehouse worker, the delivery driver, the construction worker, the nurse, the supermarket assistant who are being underserved by the Conservatives and who’d be the first to suffer from inflation and rising living costs this year. Rather than gunning for Johnson’s downfall and going into a general election without having first reformed itself programmatically and ideologically, Labour should therefore focus on first regaining its identity as a party committed to improving working people’s lives and building organic grassroots support in offices, shops, and factories alike. Once this crucial work is done, the battle for Downing Street can begin. 

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