We’re only just over a year into Boris Johnson’s premiership. The next general election isn’t meant to be until May 2024. So, isn’t it a bit early to be asking this?
Well, perhaps not.
Conservative MP Steve Baker – a leading Brexiteer and member of the Covid Recovery Group of MPs wanting lockdown restrictions lifted – recently warned his leadership could be ‘on the table’, depending on how things play out in the months ahead.
The bald answer to the question is yes, they are numbered, but it’s the wrong question of course. All Prime Ministers’ days are always numbered (so apologies for the clickbait). Politics is a brutal game and even the most resilient and capable leaders are usually toppled or persuaded to stand down when their party thinks they’ll lose.
The Conservatives have traditionally been much more ruthless than Labour in switching theirs. Might they decide that Boris has become a liability, served his purpose and choose a new leader before the next election?
Boris is an electoral phenomenon. He is a brand unto himself and is the only politician for a long time able to really cut through to the public with a combination of punchy soundbites, humour and optimism. He is marmite though.
Some people thoroughly despise him for what he’s done and what they believe he represents. Some warned he wasn’t up to the challenge of high office and would be a disaster.
But the party chose him as leader because he was the only person thought to have had any chance of rescuing their electoral fortunes, which had hit new lows under Theresa May, and to steward the task of seeing Brexit through. After a series of high-stakes gambles he succeeded in doing both, was the hero of his party and all set to push forward on a reforming one-nation Tory agenda. Until, of course, Covid struck.
Since then the wheels, if not falling off the wagon completely, have become dangerously wobbly.
We’ve seen u-turn after u-turn – free school meals, face masks, mass testing, opening/closing of schools, exam results, extension of furlough, the list goes on – leaving Tory backbenchers exasperated that the government, rather than leading, has been blown around by events, with little or no ‘grip’.
Comparatively, the UK appears to have performed poorly in handling the pandemic, both in terms of death toll and the impact on the economy. A tendency for Boris to hold out for as long as possible on making difficult decisions has become identified as a key and costly weakness, whether you’re an MP in favour of tough restrictions or one that wants them lifted.
Whether Boris will lead the party into the next election will probably depend on three things:
- How successful the vaccine rollout is and how fast restrictions are lifted
Voters have been pretty forgiving of government cock-ups so far because of the unprecedented challenges the pandemic has posed. But we’re now a year on.
Covid fatigue is growing and we can expect them to be far less forgiving if the way back towards some kind of normality is messed up.
- How far and fast the government tries to repair the public finances and who picks up the bill
Boris has promised there’ll be no return to austerity. Inflating our way out of the huge debts we’ve run up isn’t a route the Treasury will want to take. Growing our way out is optimistic. A significant consolidation will probably be needed over one or more Budgets within the next couple of years.
Tory MPs in former ‘Red Wall’ constituencies are already organised and lobbying hard to make sure their constituents see what was promised, both in terms of Brexit benefits and the levelling up of their communities. Meanwhile MPs from Tory heartlands will fight hard to avoid new taxes on businesses and voters with assets. Tensions within the party could quickly grow.
- Whether he can create a sense of optimism for the country in a post-Brexit, post pandemic world
Brexit was sold and delivered on the back of an optimistic narrative that the UK can thrive as an independent nation with an ambitious and renewed global outlook.
Few can sell an optimistic message better than Boris. But the experience of the pandemic has shown him to be perhaps over-optimistic. Whether voters will buy what he’ll be selling in the same way they have in the past is uncertain.
And if the economy doesn’t bounce back as strongly as hoped, if the current Brexit hangovers last, and if Labour continues its journey back towards the centre ground, the Conservatives may start to panic and begin thinking about an alternative.
If you ask me to put money on it now though, while his political road will be very bumpy, I’d expect the party to stick with him as a fully tried and tested election winner.