politics explained

Is Boris Johnson’s time as PM drawing to a close?

Tory factionalism could come to a head after a summer of discontent, writes Sean O'Grady

Tuesday 25 August 2020 21:06
Boris Johnson visits Appledore Shipyard in Devon yesterday
Boris Johnson visits Appledore Shipyard in Devon yesterday

For his political enemies, in his own party as well as the opposition, it must be tempting to wonder if the brief, colourful and sometimes shocking Age of Johnson might soon be drawing to its close. With yet another U-turn, this time on face coverings, the return to schools in England could turn out to be as big a flop as the exam results fiasco, as the “world-beating” track and trace app or as embarrassing as various other faltering government initiatives in recent months (free school meals, NHS surcharge), it might indeed be difficult to see what use the Conservatives would have for Boris Johnson.

Johnson has already, lest we forget, spaffed a vast amount of political capital in the effort to save Dominic Cummings, and the prime minister has squandered goodwill at all levels of the Tory machine. Perhaps he’s outlived his usefulness now. Having won a general election (was it only eight months ago?) with a thumping majority, trounced Jeremy Corbyn and (sort of) got Brexit done, suddenly the dude Johnson looks more of a dud. He is surprisingly weak and vulnerable, unable to navigate out of the Covid-19 morass. The Tories have always been famously unsentimental about getting shot of failing leaders, no matter what their past achievements may be – May, IDS, Heath, even Thatcher were all publicly forced out. Michael Howard, back in 2005, was the last to go at a moment of his own choosing; before that you have to go back to Stanley Baldwin in 1937 to find a Tory leader who was entirely happy and content to retire, at peace with their successor, their party and its prospects.

It is always the next election that counts, and the Tories have lost too much ground in recent weeks to feel entirely comfortable with the current leadership. They’ve still got a modest lead, but it’s more thanks to lingering mistrust of Labour rather than confidence in the Conservatives. Keir Starmer’s personal ratings against Johnson look good. So too do Nicola Sturgeon’s in Scotland, where a different kind of political battle needs to be fought and won. Voters are more fickle these days too.

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