08/02/2022. London, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson hosts the Prime Ministers Business Council alongside the Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer and leading business figures in 10 Downing Street. Picture by Simon Dawson / No 10 Downing Street

Editorial of the Socialist issue 1231

“Unite or die” because our party is facing an “existential threat”, Rishi Sunak warned the Tories nine months ago when he first became their leader and therefore – without the electorate being given any say in the matter – prime minister. Compared to the open warfare of the previous months, Sunak did oversee a brief lull in inter-Tory hostilities. But that short period is now a distant memory, and dying, if not immediately, is a far more likely perspective for the Tories than uniting. This should give confidence to all workers that this Tory government can be defeated.

Boris Johnson, prime minister just nine months ago, is no longer even a Tory MP. He resigned with showers of invective against the supposed “witch hunt in revenge for Brexit” by the “kangaroo court” of the Tory-majority Parliamentary Privileges Committee. Its report was clearly going to recommend that he be suspended from parliament for more than ten days, opening the likelihood of a recall petition and Johnson facing a by-election.

Johnson vs Sunak

Most of Johnson’s letter, however, was aimed not at the Privileges Committee but Sunak and his cabinet for not being “a properly Conservative government”. He has followed up with a broadside against Sunak for “talking rubbish” over just how many of Johnson’s cronies should be rewarded for their crimes with a sinecure in the House of Lords. On the other side, Tory MPs have laid into Johnson, accusing him of “mutiny” and demanding he “shut up and go away”.

Meanwhile Johnson’s resignation – along with two of his closest allies – has left the Tory Party with three parliamentary by-elections and the possibility, given the party’s dire poll ratings, that they could lose all of them. The Tories are busy tearing each other to shreds, fighting over who is to blame for the mess they are in, and starting to position themselves for the splits and realignments that will certainly take place beyond the general election, and maybe before.

Every one of the combatants in this war bears responsibility for the crimes of the Tories over the last thirteen years. Johnson’s goose was finally cooked by the mass disgust over his partying while the country was in lockdown, and his blatant lies about it. It is not only the Johnson wing of the Tories, however, that faces public fury for their crimes during the pandemic – from handing out cash to companies run by their mates, to allowing the virus to lay waste to care homes. It is not a coincidence that Johnson made a show of publicly handing over WhatsApp messages to the Covid Inquiry that the Cabinet Office had refused to release: he was deliberately highlighting Sunak’s fear of what would come out, including over his ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme.

At root, the Tories growing disintegration is a result of the deep and growing crisis of ailing British capitalism. The result is misery for the big majority of the population and growing hatred of this government. Spending on consumer-facing services is currently 10% below pre-pandemic levels, reflecting a brutal fall in living standards. The Office for Budget Responsibility is now predicting that real household income per head will still be below pre-pandemic levels in 2027-28.

Inflation is the highest of any developed economy except Turkey. The mortgage market is already in turmoil and the value of UK government debt (gilts) this week fell lower than during the Truss fiasco. Meanwhile, the NHS is stretched beyond breaking point. Clearly, Sunak intends the general election to take place on or probably after the May 2024 local elections. Despite his intentions, however, it is not impossible that coming events could force him to go earlier.

It is this reality that will motivate the majority to vote the Tories out of office at the next election, rather than the mantra of ‘fiscal responsibility’ (in reality doing the bidding of the finance markets) being spouted by the latest incarnation of New Labour. While most of those who vote Labour will be doing so without any enthusiasm, it is a different story for the capitalist elite. The majority of them are now firmly of the view that Starmer’s New Labour will be better able to defend the interests of British capitalism than their historic party, the Tories.

Johnson and his allies’ Trumpesque right-populist tub thumping damages the institutions of British capitalism without any thought for the consequences for their system. Johnson’s attempt to reward his mates with peerages, and the resulting row, has further undermined the authority of the unelected House of Lords, which for the capitalist class is an important tool which could be used to try and block a future democratically elected socialist government. 

Tory MP, and previous Tory Chair, Jake Berry tweeted in response to Johnson’s resignation: “You voted for Brexit – the establishment blocked it. You voted for @BorisJohnson – the establishment has forced him out. Who is in charge here… The voters or the blob?” By ‘the blob’ the Johnsonites mean the unelected civil service, another vital tool for the capitalist class in attempting to block a future left government, which Johnson and co. openly undermine.

Of course, Berry is also correct to say that the capitalist establishment want rid of Johnson, because he is such an extremely unreliable representative of their interests. But nor is Sunak, atop a warring and increasingly demoralised parliamentary party, able to consistently put the wider interests of the capitalist system ahead of the sectional concerns of the Tory Party. While he brought a few months of relative calm, he has also been prepared, for example, to risk the Northern Ireland Protocol, and more broadly greater cooperation with the EU, by pushing ahead with his government’s racist and repressive ‘small boats’ legislation, which is in conflict with the European Court of Human Rights. He is doing so in order to pacify his own backbenches and in the hope of winning a few more votes.

While no amount of racist rhetoric will prevent electoral disaster for the Tories, it can have an effect on increasing racism. It is clear that an incoming Starmer government will face a right-populist opposition party, possibly more than one. Nigel Farage is already claiming he is in ‘talks’ with Johnson. No doubt Johnson prefers to dream of a future comeback as Tory leader than bother with the ‘small fry’ of the Reform Party or its ilk. Whatever happens, there will still be many right-populists inside the parliamentary Tory party after the general election.

Starmer’s Labour

The bosses’ newspaper, the Financial Times, recently ran a three-part series of articles praising Starmer’s Labour and emphasising how thoroughly he had “consolidated control by sidelining the hard left and taking over party machinery”. The final part of the trilogy, however, warned that, unlike Blair in 1997, Starmer would face “a mess” of “high-debt, disappointing growth and struggling public services”. Clearly the Financial Times trusts Starmer to act in the interests of their class when dealing with this mess. Conversely, we can be confident he will not act in the interests of our class: the working-class majority. As discontent at Starmer’s austerity politics grows under the next government, the populist right will try to make gains.

What is needed to cut across that is for the working class to build its own party, with a socialist programme that fights against racism and in defence of the whole of the working class.

Just four years ago, in 2019, the capitalist elite united behind Johnson – putting aside their doubts about him – in order to defeat Jeremy Corbyn and his anti-austerity programme. Four years on, and both Corbyn and Johnson are out of their parliamentary parties. The capitalist class have found a way out of their crisis of political representation, created by the meltdown of their traditional party, by turning to Starmer’s New Labour, with its left wing driven out.

That leaves the working class with no political voice and it is urgent that begins to change. A workers’ list in the general election, with candidates from across the trade unions that have been involved in strike action, would be an important first step to prepare for what is to come.