Politics

Iain Macwhirter: The party’s over in Number 10. But where’s the new clown?

One year ago, Boris Johnson was sitting, if not pretty, then pretty comfortably. The perma-tousled Prime Minister wasn’t exactly world king, but he’d made his mark on British politics as a genuine history maker.

He had succeeded in getting a fractious House of Commons, including Labour, to back his Brexit trade deal. Forecasts of empty supermarket shelves, medicine shortages and lorry jams at Dover had not come to pass.

He had an apparently unassailable majority in the Commons. Mr Johnson’s Vaccine Task Force put Britain ahead of the world in the fight against coronavirus. The imaginative furlough scheme had kept unemployment at bay and many businesses solvent during the pandemic. The Conservatives were a steady 10 points ahead in the opinion polls.

Now 12 months on and the preternaturally buoyant Boris is sinking beneath the waves. In the space of a week he suffered a 100-strong rebellion by Conservative MPs, second only in size to the Brexit rebellions suffered by Theresa May, and two days later the worst Conservative by-election defeat since Christchurch in 1993. That was the bell that tolled for John Major, after Black Wednesday’s interest rate hike.

The third blow last week was the Bank of England’s increase in interest rates, the first of many, we are assured – tolling the end for cheap mortgages. To be fair, interest rates came too late to be a decisive factor in North Shropshire. There were anyway so many negatives here that it hardly mattered. This was the seat of the disgraced Tory MP, Owen Paterson, caught making “egregious” breaches of the rules on paid advocacy. Sleaze, the very factor that destroyed the Conservatives in the 1990s, had come back to haunt the party.

Boris Johnson did his best to make a drama out of this crisis by initially whipping his MPs to back Mr Paterson and scrap the rules under which he had been censured by the Commons Standards Commissioner, Kathryn Stone. The next day he unwhipped Tory MPs and told them to ditch Mr Paterson. Unforced errors rarely come quite so unforced or so erroneous. It made the PM look both soft on corruption and soft in the head. Conservative MPs were furious.

But this mistake, however serious, was not enough to fatally undermine his leadership, let alone precipitate a catastrophic by-election defeat.

Nor indeed was it the Whitehall farce of partygate. The public are relatively forgiving about human failure during national crises. Number 10 staff holding an impromptu party, when they were working there late anyway, is not exactly a hanging offence. Nor did the putative party actively involve the Prime Minister. Nor indeed was he involved in the bash in Conservative Central Office that led to the resignation of Shaun Bailey, the former Tory mayoral candidate for London. This was bubble politics. It might have made voters grumpy, but they were that anyway.

Similarly, the row over the redecoration of the Number 10 flat was more ridiculous than corrupt. After all, no public money had been blown on the eccentric interior designer Lulu Lytle turning the PM’s flat into what looked like a Balinese bordello.

No, the roots of Boris Johnson’s fall from grace lie much deeper in the real world of the economy, where the Tories are supposed to be so strong. North Shropshire is about as true blue as it is possible to get. Overwhelmingly pro-Brexit, rural, composed of small towns, and lacking universities and large immigrant communities. This is not a red-wall seat stolen from Labour. It is a blue-wall seat where Conservative voters now feel left behind.

The farms have been having a grim time, as anyone who has watched the popular Clarkson’s Farm programme knows. Hospitality firms are in dire straights. There has been a chronic labour shortage, rising wage bills, increased costs like the recent hike in employers’ National Insurance. Businesses can’t get their produce to market.

Yes, these are arguably problems associated with Brexit. But this was not what they thought they were voting for when they backed Leave.

Nor did they vote for rising prices in the shops. The Bank of England has been rocked by the rapidity with which this scourge, traditionally associated with Labour governments, has returned. Energy bills are going through the roof. Petrol prices have been at record highs. People are having to cut back on travelling and on the quality and variety of food. Meanwhile, taxes have been increased under a Conservative government to the highest level since the 1950s.

Most North Shropshire Tory voters are homeowners, but house prices here are not at the stratospheric levels of the south of England. The tax hikes, sorry, the “Health Social Care Levy”, introduced by Boris Johnson in September, ostensibly to prevent very wealthy people having to sell their homes to pay for care, may

not have gone down so well among the elderly home owners of Oswestry.

Nor indeed has the abandonment of the pensions triple lock been a vote winner for the over-65s, who are, of course, the most reliable Tory voters in North Shropshire. Boris Johnson has not shown elderly,

less-educated voters much love. He hasn’t fought the culture wars on their behalf against “woke” multiculturalists. The record numbers of migrant boat people seem to have made a nonsense of taking back control of Britain’s borders.

Instead, this Tory Prime Minister became the champion of green policies at COP26, telling rural Shropshire voters that they have to get rid of their cars and central heating boilers. In a rural constituency, lecturing folk about switching to bicycles or non-existent public transport does not go down particularly well.

This was a revolt by Tories against a government that doesn’t seem to be very Tory any more. A government that has been spending more than Jeremy Corbyn but seems unable to offer its supporters much hope of an increase in their material wellbeing.

Now, there may be some logical inconsistency here in North Shropshirites voting for the Liberal Democrats, since they are markedly more green than the Tories, more keen on tax and spend, and more adamant that transwomen are women. But this was a revolt, not a call for a change of government.

Labour, who came second here last time, sank 12 points on Thursday – just as they did in Chesham and Amersham six months ago. This was a protest against a Tory government that has lost its ideological bearings and lost the plot. The evident lack of grip in Number 10 adds insult to injury.

Boris Johnson is not facing an immediate threat. The chairman of the 1922, Sir Graham Brady, isn’t going to get the 54 Tory MPs necessary for a leadership challenge.

This is largely because there isn’t any obvious successor. Rishi Sunak is too new, Liz Truss too flaky, and Priti Patel too unstable.

But the search for an alternative to Johnson will begin the moment MPs return from the latest quasi lockdown. They’ve had enough of the joker, the lord of misrule in Number 10. For Boris the party is finally over.

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