Bruce Anderson

Do the Tories really want Boris to fight the next election?

When it comes to the economy and the cost of living, Boris simply does not know how to sound sincere

Do the Tories really want Boris to fight the next election?
(Photo: Getty)
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In large part, these local elections were a referendum on a basic proposition. Do the government and the Prime Minister deserve a kick in the pants? As it was virtually impossible to argue against that verdict, Boris Johnson could claim to have done surprisingly well. Indeed, some of his Tory critics are disappointed with the outcome. It does not justify an immediate coup.

That said, it seems certain that many of the Tory losses can be blamed on Boris. A lot of traditional Tories, who are used to seriousness in their own lives, will not accept lower standards in their prime minister. This appears to have been especially true in London.

In local elections, London always attracts disproportionate attention. Keir Starmer will be grateful for that. He has done well in London: less well, elsewhere. In the nation as a whole, this is certainly not an election-winning performance by Labour.

Beyond Boris's clownish mendacity, two further factors explain Labour’s successes in the capital. The first is Brexit. In 2016, London voted to remain and a lot of Londoners have still not recanted. The second is the politics of envy. London is an expensive city. It is possible for Londoners to feel hard up on a salary which would guarantee a prosperous lifestyle out in the sticks. The rising cost of living is adding to anxieties and Labour, wisely, concentrated its attacks on the government’s record.

The Liberals had a good night. They benefited from cakegate, beergate, currygate and Angela Rayner’s legs. On the stump, their canvassers oozed sanctimony, claiming to be morally superior to all the other parties, which will come as news to anyone who has encountered the shameless lies which Liberals routinely deploy on the doorstep.

Despite that, they have always benefited from appealing to high-mindedness. Liberal voters were often put off by the rougher edge of Thatcherism. Nor were they at ease with a Labour party so bound up with the trade unions. After he lost Bath to a Liberal in 1992, Chris Patten said that a lot of Liberal voters were members of the Wine Society who owned a neo-Georgian house and now wanted to prove their moral credentials. That remains true.

There is, of course, one chronic problem. What do the Liberals actually believe? Many of them could identify with Tony Blair: a leader on the left who did not want to raise income tax rates. Whatever their view of Boris’s morals, others would approve of his political philosophy: have cake, eat cake. Beyond that, they remain the ‘none of the above’ party: the spittoon party. When it comes to a general election, doubtful Tories wavering in a Liberal direction will be warned, as they always are, that a vote for the Liberals is a vote for Labour. That often works, but would this be true under the current leader?

Long before the next election, the Tories will have to make a cold-eyed decision. Dare they risk fighting it under Boris Johnson’s leadership? Although it is true that Sir Stumbler is not impressive and may not have been immune from lockdown lapses, he has a certain wooden decency. When it comes to the economy and the cost of living, Boris has a recurrent difficulty. He simply does not know how to sound sincere. Keir Starmer can, for a simple reason: he is sincere. He does care about the economic sufferings of the less well-off. That is not true of Boris, and it shows.

Unless the forecasters are all wrong, the UK is heading for a dire conjunction. Inflation plus recession equals stagflation. This cannot be blamed on Boris. A pandemic plus Ukraine equals disruption to supply lines and to world trade, leading to lower growth and higher inflation all round, plus the threat of widespread disorder in the third world.

There is no immediate cure. That makes it even more important that our politicians should be able to offer leadership, based on moral depth and intellectual weight.

Boris has neither. All he can offer is a parody of Churchillian rhetoric. The Ukraine war will have to end with a compromise. If none is forthcoming, there is a grave danger that tactical nuclear weapons will be deployed. Boris is using Ukraine to shore up his position in the Tory party. It is to be hoped that a party which has always regarded itself as the custodian of the national interest will not be impressed by this blend of bombast and cynicism.

Nearer to home, the Boris problem is especially acute in Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon has run a chronically incompetent administration and that ought to show. Under the Barnett formula, Scotland receives substantially more per capita for health, education and policing than the English do. The result: substantially worse outcomes than in England.

Yet in these elections, the SNP has actually gained seats, while the Tories fell to third place behind Labour. The Union is not safe under Boris.

For the moment, he is probably safe. Tory MPs who want him gone, willing to wound but afraid to strike, have an excuse to hold back: the forthcoming Sue Gray report. Yet one thing is clear. Even if the PM hangs on, relying on a blend of luck and expediency, he will never be able to regain the dignity which ought to grace his great office. That makes him unworthy. This is no time for an unworthy prime minister.