Might Johnson be replaced – and what might this mean for the left?
20th June 2020

In recent political events, we’ve seen demands for the removal of the Prime Minister’s top advisor and chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, as well as open speculation that Matt Hancock could be made to be the fall guy for the Government’s failings in dealing with coronavirus. But there’s another possibility: that Boris Johnson himself gets removed.

This is not the same as the Government falling, or there being an election – though these are both possibilities too. In the scenario I am thinking of, Johnson is replaced as leader without the Government as a whole falling or there being an election, with a continuity of Conservative rule. This would be similar to the last two changes of Conservative Leader and Prime Minister – both David Cameron and Theresa May were replaced without a government falling or an election.

I don’t mean to predict this — this sort of prediction is beyond my knowledge and vision. But I do think that it is a possibility, and one worth considering to reflect on what this might mean for the left strategically.

We should bear in mind that our politics is very volatile at the moment, that so much of what was normal is up in the air and in flux. Brexit is one example of this, but that did not come from nowhere: there was clearly volatility in our society, and Brexit is where that broke through. Since Brexit, things have been all over the place politically, with so many things that were previously almost unthinkable happening. Coronavirus has also, of course, increased this volatility, and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, and the broader political situation in the USA, are also part of this. Also, at some point in the near future our monarch will die. Instead of thinking ‘what would feel right in the moment’, we could instead imagine we are in the future looking back, where the narratives can easily be seen or imposed on our current situation, and there are so many narrative possibilities.

Johnson’s replacement would come about because the forces in and behind the Conservative Party might decide that Johnson is too much of a liability. His general handling of Covid-19 may be enough for this, as well as the Cummings affair which pissed off a lot of people within his party, the media, and the country. It may unfold that, as time goes on, as we are in a recession worse than other countries, as it is clear that our death toll is higher than most comparable countries, higher than Italy and Spain despite the advance warning that we had, this pressure builds.

Casting ourselves back one year to the Conservative selection, they faced a choice between a continuity leader with more of the same, or the wild card of Johnson. (To be fair, Rory Stewart was also a different option, not a continuity candidate.) They seemed, and still seem, to be a party in decline: their ideology, dominant for the last four decades, is spent, and has done little to improve equality or sentiment among many of the population. They had nothing new to say, and Labour, with Corbyn at the helm, won the economic and political arguments about the need for a better, fairer society, and increasing public spending, and to some degree, transforming the economy and our society. Of course, there are lots of ‘culture wars’ arguments which Labour did not win, including the way Brexit was a ‘culture war’ sort of issue, but in these areas the Conservatives are not advancing an ideology but defending a socially conservative status quo.

After the 2017 election, and Theresa May’s failure to deliver on Brexit, there was a real possibility that Corbyn could win the election, especially as the UKIP/Brexit Party voter base might not have voted Conservative as they did in 2017, without which the Conservatives would not have won. Johnson was a last roll of the dice, and polling suggested he had a good chance of winning the election where none of the other candidates did. Johnson had two things to offer the party: a personality which could win an election, and an ability to move through the Brexit issue.

These purposes are both spent: he won the election, delivering an 80-seat majority, and the Brexit issue is close to being ‘dealt with’. It does not seem to me that Johnson has much to offer the Conservative Party or the forces behind it.

We should remember that behind the Conservative Party are rich people and an economic system who want their ideology to remain dominant. Our economy and society have already undergone a neoliberal transformation, and while there is more that could be done with this, it is already dominant. Johnson did not seem to have a strong vision of any changes he would make to society, more someone who wants power for power’s sake, which makes him a suitable vehicle for the power behind the Conservative Party to have in place.

But he is not necessary. If he is seen to be too much of a liability, that the failures around Covid and coming recession drag him down too much, then instead of risking that continuing to drag and lose the next election, whether that is in 2024 or sooner, they might decide to replace him. The ‘men in grey suits’ could force him out, and he did meet with the 1922 Committee earlier this week.

I don’t think now would be the time to replace him, because Covid-19 is still too current, the EU negotiations still underway, and our economic situation (and unemployment and destitution in our society) looks likely to only get worse in the second half of this year. It would make sense to wait until the recession is at a low point before replacing him, so that that can be part of the stone around Johnson’s neck he is cast out with.

The narrative could be something like:

Yes, Covid-19 was not well handled, and we have a painful recession, but that was because Johnson and Hancock were poor leaders, not because of our party or ideology. Our party with a new leader will help see us through these times, just as they saw us through the recovery from the financial crisis and Labour’s bankruptcy of the economy, and delivered on Brexit to unlock the potential of the British people.

As I said earlier, this is not a prediction. History is a mixture of prevailing winds and flapping butterflies, and currently there is a lot of volatility. But I do think it is a possibility worth considering, and reflecting on what it means for the left.

Our aim is not to simply bring down the Government or oppose Johnson: our aim is to realise a better world.

There are a range of strategies for this. Some have a focus of getting the Labour Party into power and winning the next election, as is current leadership’s focus. Some have a broader aim of achieving socialism or even communism, want to control and transform the Labour Party and then win an election. Some on the left do not focus even on party politics, focusing on extra-parliamentary politics, community organising, transforming society and the economy in other ways.

Would it be positive for these strategies if a different Conservative leader takes over to govern with an 80-seat majority? Who knows. Perhaps this would lead to the decline of the Conservative Party without Johnson’s boisterous leadership, or perhaps it would be better for Johnson to continue and be dragged down by his recent failings. An election in the next year might be the right time for the Labour Party to take over with popular support, or it might be too soon to have made a significant change from the 2019 election.

But whichever strategy you take, you need to be prepared for possibilities that might happen to react to those, to avoid knee-jerk reactions and have a strategy ready to respond. Generally, talking more broadly about the failures and ideology of the Conservative policy and campaigning against all of the injustices in our society are what we should focus on, instead of simple criticism of the current Government to chip away at their political power.

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