After Johnson: be careful who you wish for

The Conservatives may need to elect a new leader within weeks if Prime Minister Johnson, already manifestly precarious in his role, is removed either by his own hand or by his fellow MPs (if not by the Metropolitan Police). From the viewpoint of large numbers of decent citizens, this seems highly desirable. It may seem ironic that Johnson’s venality in awarding contracts and incompetence in defending the population against Covid-19 are not the cause of this but his arrogant narcissism.

The socialising culture he has inculcated or allowed in Downing Street, which so casually insults the responsible electorate, may seem quite minor in comparison, but decency still matters to some Conservatives as well as to his staff and the wider public. Nonetheless, could a weakened Johnson be politically more attractive in No.10 than any of the alternatives?

It is probable that few readers of this will have any say in the election of a new Tory leader in the event that one is needed, but this will not stop most of us from having or expressing preferences about the candidates, in the hope that some public pressure may influence those whose votes actually count.

Option 1 right wing ideologues seeking to drive the autocratic agenda but, perhaps, with austerity to boot

Option 1 is the election of another descendant of the Brexit ‘Ultras’ such as Sajid Javid of the Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group or Liz Truss of the famous five who authored Britannia Unchained. These right-wing ideologues would seek to continue to drive the autocratic agenda some have already been able to start under Johnson, but perhaps with austerity to boot.  

Would a less populist autocrat be a more effective one? Even if not, as would seem likely were Truss to win, the probable ensuing chaos would do the country no good. The damage to citizens’ lives and communities is hard to countenance but must be a genuine prospect. That the chosen one might be less popular in the country than Johnson would not matter until the next General Election, by which time the damage could have been done.

Option 2 – a capable but less extreme leader – a real one-nation Tory

Option 2, the election of a capable but less extreme leader – a real one-nation Tory, say – is still a possibility, when the right-wing clique seems to be in a numerical minority in parliament. Such a centrist character may exist still in the currently subdued and obedient ranks of the party, despite the 2019 Johnsonian purge removing some of the more obvious candidates, like Gauke, Grieve and Hammond.  Tom Tugendhat, for example, who has thrown his hat into the ring.

Should the majority on the Tory benches have lost its taste for the Brexit clique or Raab-id right and choose someone sane and competent, what then?  Such a possibility should obviously be preferred, but it suffers from one major flaw for progressives: it could lead to a more successful Conservative regime, putting a social democratic future far over the horizon. The party has shown in the past a willingness to choose from outside the senior ministerial group, but the example of Cameron may make them think twice about such a step this time.

Could someone such as Rishi Sunak bridge these two camps?

It is possible that the parliamentary party, having seen what appeasement of the right-wing has done, may opt for a more centrist leader, but the bullying tail, aka the Covid Recovery Group (CRG), who shout loudest and are well organised, is still quite likely to go on wagging the party dog. It may collectively believe that opting for an individual to bridge these camps, such as Rishi Sunak, would work, though his record is less encouraging than public opinion may credit. He looks more like Osborne in his attitude to public spending.

What should progressives, then, wish or campaign for? We may have no vote in the process, but opposition parties do play a role in retaining or defenestration of the PM, in the pressure they can bring. Do we risk more extremism; or competent and effective government?  Or should we, perish the thought, prefer to keep a lame-duck Johnson in post to improve progressives’ chances in elections?

The good of the country must surely come first. Yes, many of us believe that the country’s long-term interest lies in more socially and economically liberal governance, but until the public can be convinced to vote this in, under whatever electoral system is in place at the time, we must hope to minimise harm. An honest leader would be a start, so doing everything to rid ourselves of the corrupt, incompetent Johnson and those acolytes who might emulate his venal ways seems the top priority, even at the risk of deferring the unlikely prospect of a centre-left government.

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