Johnson resigns: Tory divisions and the Scottish dimension
The trouble for the Tories is entering a new chapter
Despite resignation after resignation, Boris Johnson remained intransigent. This was not the most efficient political kill the Tories have been known for. Even as the Prime Minister resigns, it has a feeling of new and chaotic territory. He intends to limp on, zombie like, as “caretaker leader” until the October conference, leaving open the potential for more disarray. The party has been drawn deep into the morass. Indeed, more than that, it has engulfed the whole edifice of the British state with a renewed sense of political calamity, as it stutters from one to the next, seemingly without end. This, in the midst of an ever sharpening economic crisis, war in Europe and the return of popular national strike action.
At the surface level, this is an obviously depressing picture for the Tories. One source reported that those in and around Number 10 are “demoralised, distraught and distressed.” If you stay on the surface of events, though, there is in theory at least, a way forward being rehearsed by Tories doing the media rounds.
It goes something like this. With Johnson gone, the party can look forward to a fresh replacement. While Labour have had consistent poll leads, it is plausible this is because of the unpopularity of the Prime Minister, rather than the popularity of Keir Starmer. Say this new leader ushers in a fresh cabinet and, all going well, experiences a poll bounce. With nerves steadied, some kind of leadership can be imposed on events which starts to turn the tide back.
Theory doesn’t always match reality. The bright and determined mood of those advocating such a plan has somewhat soured. The obvious problem being that already the whole party, including many of its leading figures, has been pulled into the political sewer. We are told there are lots of potential candidates. But in truth there is real uncertainty about any one of them being able to get beyond the carnage.
Yet there are deeper problems than those considerable challenges. Because this is not a surface level crisis. Far from it. Yes, the headlines have been dominated by partygate, Pincher, sleaze, dishonesty and so on. But the questions that now confront the Tories are not public relations ones, nor are they reducible to personalities or procedures.
Instead, they have to negotiate a far more complex and fundamental set of fissures, and competing ideas, about how the party should approach the period writ large.
The divisions about the way forward for British capitalism are reflected in the establishment as a whole. Arguments around the nature and direction of the party represent the core of the Tory crisis, more so than the proximate political scandals that deluge the government. The Tories look so bedevilled because there are no easy answers for them, regardless of Johnson’s resignation. They lack a unified strategy, an agreed vision, and as a result a candidate who can command a sense of immediate authority.
This, indeed, helps explain why and how Johnson has hung on for as long as he has. A more coherent party, guided by respected grandees and a sense of strategic alignment, would have been able to move more swiftly, and effectively, to remove and replace the Prime Minister with a galvanising agenda. That is not the case. The Spectator editor, Fraser Nelson, noted in January:
“…we have a recipe for multi-dimensional Tory wars: high spenders vs the frugal, Scots vs English, Northerners vs Southerners, Brexit radicals vs incrementalists, free traders vs protectionists. All fought, quite plausibly, with a toolkit of dirty tricks.
“Perhaps this is why some of Johnson’s allies are saying that his enemies can forget about any smooth transition. That he’d hang on to the last, maximising the agony, then there would probably have to be a snap election. Do they really want all that now?”
Bear in mind, too, that this all comes after a protracted period of division over Brexit at the very top of British politics, finance and business. These schisms were not just played out among rival Tory MPs, but manifested as part of a wider divergence between large parts of corporate Britain, including the CBI, and the party of capital itself. This has not gone away, as the relationship between the UK and the EU continues to evolve. As Conter editor, David Jamieson, puts it:
“Since the war in Ukraine began, talk of a more coherent European order has re-emerged, including of new transnational organisations that will coordinate those states within and without both the EU and NATO. The Brexit impasse was a torrid time for the Conservative party and wider British establishment, and it is likely that powerful forces will seek a long-term re-convergence with transnational power.”
So, there are lots of moving parts around exactly how some kind of “stable” order can emerge. In a sense, for many, Johnson was never part of the solution first place. He blundered into Brexit, itself in the political swamp, for opportunist reasons and short-term factional gain, not out of principle. He rode the “populist tiger” to become Prime Minister, and didn't stop. Much of the British ruling class, on the other hand, crave stability after years of displacement. For many, the call in 2020 was for “BBV” as a means to start moving on from a period of extreme volatility: Biden, a Brexit deal and a Vaccine.
Parts of the Right, however, preferred Trump and a no deal Brexit. This kind of split, in crude terms, has caused confusion and discord inside the Conservatives. Thus, Johnson and his allies conceived of a new political reality. One in which the Tory Party must undergo its own revolution in order to sustain new constituencies, drawing on the energies of 2016 and 2019. Driven by impulses that leave the Treasury wing aghast, the legal establishment flummoxed and the civil service at sea, also meant confronting certain sections of the party.
Now though, for the mainstream of the establishment intent on restoring some kind of sustainable elite rule, in a period of turmoil, the chaos personified by Johnson needs to be brought to an end. Quickly. Many considered this to be a given from the very start and have been preparing for this moment for some time. Others have come along out of a sense of self-preservation. Meanwhile another section, who essentially agree with the more right-wing and populist elements associated with Tory Brexit and Johnson, have decamped to form a rear guard action, seeking to mobilise that section of the party who want to see the same kind of approach as outlined by Nigel Farage.
That notion of “multi-dimensional Tory wars” has been simmering, and is now boiling over. No individual, or group of individuals, has the monopoly on where it ends up. The idea of a bloody leadership battle has until now chilled moves against Johnson. No more. With that, may come a new set of painful problems.
Crisis and opportunity
Some Tories think they should pivot to their wedge issues around immigration, the “war on woke” and the various elements that make up the culture war. Others, and we got a hint of this from Sajid Javid’s speech, think they should attempt to pursue something more in the vein of “One Nation Conservatism.” But within this, the orientation on the economy is central. I spoke to James Meadway, formerly an economic advisor to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, to get a sense to the Tory lines of division:
“The Sunak/Javid wing is talking up financial probity and fiscal conservatism, but the Tories’ rather shaky new base in the “Red Wall” will not tolerate austerity, and their old base in the shires will not tolerate higher taxes. A fiscally lax Conservatism is there for the taking, with Nadhim Zaharwi, Liz Truss and Johnson himself having been keen to dispense whatever largesse they can get away with.
“But without the reform of state institutions - notably the Treasury - to the point where they can realistically focus on the future, this largesse will likely descend (as it has already) into a confused mess of half-met promises and disappointed special interests.
“Confronted, too, by the potential of a resurgent trade union movement - perhaps forming the first genuine strike wave in Britain for decades - the Tories are likely to lack a clear sense of direction: Zahawi already promising pay rises to (some) teachers whilst Johnson threatens “union barons”.
Building on this, Independence Captured also spoke with economist and former Scotsman editor, George Kerevan, to get an insight into some of the dynamics at play. He puts it concisely:
“This is a fight between finance capital and supporters of a conservative fiscal state on the one hand, and a populist wing who want to destroy the last vestiges of traditional social democracy by using a loose public spending and profligate tax cuts (funded by borrowing) to buy votes and boost speculative public spending in a way that creates profits for the more piratical elements of British capitalism.”
We don’t know how, or if, these underlying divisions will be resolved before the next general election. But what we can say, is that the mainstream of the establishment are tilting towards a scenario which attempts to move the Tories beyond the wreckage of recent years. One which looks to draw a line under the Brexit era, building strong relationships with the White House, establishing a new dynamic with Scotland and focussing on rebuilding from the pandemic. Getting there, cleanly and without rancour, is a much more complicated issue. Because others believe the events of recent years to be the midwife of a new kind of Toryism, which they attest to be essential if they are to navigate the challenges of the 21st Century.
Again, this is why Tory MPs have been so nervous about moving against Johnson. They fear opening up a can of worms that may be even worse. If resolution can’t be achieved through the Tories, Keir Starmer may have purged enough of Corbynite left to make Labour a more reliable pillar of the British state in the years ahead. That notion might draw more elite support towards the party, if the circumstances demand it.
What this all does mean, is that extra-parliamentary campaigns and strikes can have greater impact on the situation. While the political centre is rudderless, and the weakness of the institutions on show for all to see, the conditions for oppositional movements to press home their demands are all the more fertile.
This is doubly so as the RMT lead disruptive, nation wide strike action, while enjoying public support for doing so. The CWU have returned strong strike ballots. We can expect more. The objective circumstances, and the structural pressures bearing down on the working class, will also result in expressions of popular resistance.
The question is what shape and form they take, and what must be done to make them successful.
The Scottish dimension
Last week, we looked at the way in which the SNP was positioning itself in preparation for a general election. Some weeks before that, we examined the important role Boris Johnson plays in the fortunes of the SNP, after their party broadcast ahead of the last local elections focussed entirely on the Tories, instead of their own policy platform. It’s worth reflecting briefly on this in the context of developments at Westminster.
The argument proposed the following hypothesis. The First Minister put forward a date for a referendum that she knows won’t be met. We can be even more sure of this after the publication of the legal advice from the Lord Advocate who could not sign off a referendum Bill. Of course, the SNP leadership have been aware of this for some time. Meanwhile, a Section 30 has been formally rejected. As an aside, given it has been rebuffed by Boris Johnson, I think it is worth vigorously resisting this response, forcing whoever replaces the Prime Minister to address the matter directly and personally.
At the same time as offering the Yes movement some kind of action, the plan involves a “de facto referendum” at a general election. It is this scenario, based on the eventual removal of Boris Johnson, that the SNP have been preparing for, rather than independence per se. That, as a project, is not meant to be realised, but held onto as a tool for reproducing SNP hegemony. It will, however, become more dominant in the SNP messaging so as to ensure the party has a strong platform in the coming election.
Remember, that between the historic election of 2015, where the SNP returned 56 seats out of 59, they then went on to drop 21 seats in 2017. Those losses included major figures in the party, including Alex Salmond and the present Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, External Affairs and Culture, Angus Robertson.
There are a few reasons for this. But one of them fed back to me through many conversations with SNP members in the aftermath, was the lack of a spine around the national question. Special Advisors often get it wrong when they are not in touch with the grassroots. Those on the frontline have the best sense of what’s happening. For the activists I spoke to, they struggled at times to remain relevant while the broadcast media focussed on Theresa May versus Jeremy Corbyn.
Because the SNP are so dominant in the Scottish scene, it is easy to forget that in Westminster elections there are very different factors at play. This, we can venture, is especially the case in an election where there is the widespread feeling that removing the Tories from power is not just part of the agenda, but odds on.
That is why the SNP must firmly reassert independence for electoral purposes, but with enough energy and conviction to comprehensively stake out the political terrain that lies ahead. That approach is now baked into the period between now and the next election.
Johnson as an SNP recruiting sergeant
Johnson has been a very important actor when it comes to the SNP. On the one hand, no matter how poor the SNP may have been in delivering a radical policy agenda, they can always make the comparison with Boris Johnson who has been toxic in Scotland from the get go.
On the other, the First Minister could elevate the spectre of Johnson at various points to shore up votes and generate a powerful contrast between Holyrood and Westminster. Now that Johnson has resigned, someone like Jeremy Hunt (god only knows who it will be, mind you) may change the texture, though not the foundations, of that kind of interplay. This is especially true for the portion of more recent SNP support drawn from parts of managerial Scotland, who have been incensed by Brexit in general, and Johnson in particular.
Alyn Smith gave the game away when he was interviewed in the hours after the resignations of Sajid Javid and Rishi Sunak. His response to a question enquiring as to his support for a general election to rid the Tories from power, was to say, “no, we are focussed on delivering an independence referendum.” Though rectified in the 24 hours that followed, his comments landed badly. Especially for everyone who understands the limited prospects of a referendum in 2023.
Come what may, the “cost of living crisis” is going to play out in Scotland in various ways. Some of it will be channelled through opposition to the Tories, some of it through support for independence, and some of it around making demands of the Scottish Government who are preparing to cut tens of thousands of public sector jobs.
Along the road, we can expect more volatility, and an intensification of the manifold global and national crises. And with it, convulsions across the whole political class.