The Conservative Government is starting to panic, Paul Montague-Smith writes, as Sunak’s pledges fail and election prospects dwindle.
It has been quite a month in Westminster.
Boris Johnson pulled the ejector seat handle before the parliamentary missile had the chance to hit. Did he knowingly mislead Parliament? The Committee found that he did, based on evidence of cautionary advice given to him by officials about what he should say in the House, which he either forgot or ignored.
Johnson says he didn’t, because he had been assured by other officials, witnessed by two parliamentary colleagues, that the regulations were being followed. The Committee also concluded that he must have known that events in Downing Street were against the rules and guidance.
Johnson argues not, otherwise incriminating evidence would have been found, which the Committee’s inquiry (nor the Police) unearthed.
By refusing to follow procedure and trying to frame the Committee’s report as a political assassination attempt, Johnson hopes to have created a possible path to one day returning to the Commons and once again being Prime Minister. Can he really make a comeback, after such a damning report?
If anyone can, he can. Not this side of an election, but perhaps before a subsequent one. Despite events over the last couple of years, he is still popular with a decent sized chunk of the party membership.
MPs’ support for him was always transactional, turning to him because he was a proven election winner. In a new Parliament it’s not impossible that they might do so again, particularly if allegations of bias and hypocrisy about the Privileges Committee inquiry bite and become embedded in the political narrative of the party.
Will Johnson be quiet? Almost certainly not, given the animosity he is believed to harbour towards Rishi Sunak. He needs to be careful of overtly undermining the Conservative Government in the run in to the election, for fear of alienating party members.
Johnson is likely to do so by implication, setting out an optimistic vision of what the UK should do and what it could be, with a certain direction of travel (subtext leadership). His evidence to the Covid public enquiry and expected memoirs will also be a platform that he’ll try to take full advantage of.
What of the current Government – can it recover to cling on at the next election? All the signs are against it. Rishi Sunak is currently failing on four of his five pledges. The one pledge he could technically claim to tick is growing the economy, but while a recession has apparently been avoided, the growth we are seeing is measly.
Inflation is persistent and the continuing hikes in interest rates mean mortgage and rent shocks are coming down the line for millions of households. The chances of people being or feeling better off, or thinking that public services are working adequately, within the next eighteen months must be very slim indeed.
The upcoming by-elections are likely to be grim for the Conservatives and serve as a reminder to many Conservative MPs to start planning for work outside of Parliament. Unless Keir Starmer implodes, or voters become fearful of change, it’s now difficult not to see a Labour led government (if not a majority one) after the next election, despite the size of swing needed – made even bigger by planned changes to parliamentary constituencies.
You often can tell when a Conservative Government feels it is in trouble and is starting to panic by how it behaves towards business. Given the massive headwinds it faces and its decision not to cut taxes to ease household finances, ministers are now turning their eye to regulators and businesses to reduce costs for consumers.
Floating ideas like price controls for staple products is a sure sign of distress. The key sector regulators were summoned to a meeting with the Chancellor, to pressure them to take more action to support consumers and drive down bills. The FCA’s recent action to look more closely at how quickly and fully banks pass through base rate changes for savers is a clear example of a response to such political demands.
As the Conservatives head towards likely electoral defeat, we can expect businesses to come under ever greater political and regulatory pressure and scrutiny over their pricing, performance and executive pay. High profile businesses in key markets should make sure they are prepared for the Eye of Sauron possibly landing on them.