Musings on contemporary politics

Back in January this year I shared my thoughts on the state of UK politics. I wrote it following a few weeks of people getting very excited about the prospect of Johnson leaving the role of prime minister because of a raft of scandals and government resignations. He didn’t. If you care to scroll down, you can read what I wrote then, which I think still holds up (aside from a small error about which piece of legislation then going through the parliamentary process would affect when general elections are called. I rectify that here).

I had scheduled an update on my thoughts about the state of UK politics for this month, being a neat six months later. I was caught by a sense of déjà vu as people got very excited about the prospect of Johnson leaving “number 10” because of a raft of scandals and resignations. 

Unlike six months ago, these July resignations ended up being the thing that pushed Johnson to resign as leader of the Conservative Party, and therefore he will soon cease to be prime minister.

REMINDER: in the UK, THE PRIME MINISTER IS NOT DIRECTLY VOTED FOR BY THE PUBLIC. It’s become blatantly obvious that quite a few Conservative Party MPs believe that the prime minister is analogous to the President of the USA, and that idea has crept into news media discourse. (Not unique to the UK. I saw similar behaviour in Australia and I’m sure it may pop up in similar parliamentary democracies.)

Equally as bonkers is the excitement in some quarters that Johnson hasn’t resigned as prime minister because the precise phrase hasn’t passed his lips, and he hasn’t left Downing Street (or, for that matter, Chequers). However, in much the same way as Cameron did when he resigned in 2016 after losing the referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU, and May did when she lost the confidence vote during 2019, Johnson is staying as prime minister while the Conservative Party goes through its leadership selection process. 

Now, it is possible that Johnson may attempt to break the Conservative Party rules to stay, but it would be up to that organisation to deal with his intransigence in that event. Parliament also has recourse to expel him should he try and the Conservative Party fail to enforce its own rules. What Johnson may or may not do, and how those two institutions react, remains purely speculative. It is most probable that by September 2022, he’ll be gone as prime minister and there’ll be another Tory in the top government spot.

So, what else has changed over the last six months or so?

Well, the Elections Bill I wrote about in December 2021 is now the Elections Act (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2022/37/contents/enacted). It is yet to be tested, but certain provisions are highly likely to favour the Conservative Party in both general elections and contests like those for Police and Crime Commissioners. However, as far as I can tell, the Elections Act is nowhere near as bold in curtailing suffrage in the UK as it could have been. It’s certainly nothing like what the Republican Party has done and is doing in too many states in the USA, where they are making it nigh on impossible for any other party to win office.

Also passed was the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act (https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2022/11/enacted/data.pdf), which returned the UK to the world prior to the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. That means we are back to a parliament automatically dissolving five years after it first meets, if it is not dissolved sooner for a general election. Putting it crudely, the present government — regardless of who ends up as prime minister — has until December 2024 before it needs to call a general election… unless they want to test the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act and whether parliament will say “no”.

I am not alone in being very interested in when the next general election will be held.

Both May and Johnson decided to call a general election soon after they became prime minister, even though neither were compelled to under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. May gambled a small majority and lost it, only clinging on to power through a confidence and supply agreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Johnson’s gamble won the Conservatives an 80 seat working majority. 

Johnson’s successor as prime minister doesn’t have to quickly call a general election under the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Act 2022. A rational person would consider the available options carefully. Broadly speaking, they have two choices: go early, or go later.

I suspect that the next prime minister and their advisors would be mindful of the fact that neither Cameron or May got anywhere near Johnson’s majority in any of the general elections they contested as Conservative Party leader… and those elections were held when the population, economy and climate were all healthier than they are now. 

The next prime minister could delay the next general election until the last possible moment and use the present majority to push through their agenda. While tradition dictates they should still be working off the 2019 Conservative Party Manifesto that helped win their party a sizeable majority and thus government, I’m not convinced that party manifestos are as binding as perhaps once they might have been… or should be. Regardless of what agenda the next prime minister decides to push, two years is a fairly long time in politics, and if they’re capable they could do a lot. Because of what they have done in shifting the balance of power towards the executive branch, these law changes do not have to come from parliamentary bills. This government has shown repeatedly that they don’t like parliamentary scrutiny. We learned during May’s time as prime minister that “take back control” and “sovereignty” didn’t refer to parliament, but the government. This present government — regardless of the individual who leads it — has the numbers to try to rig it so it would become extremely difficult for any other party to take power from them…

Or, the next prime minister might have such self-belief that they won’t lose too many seats if they call a general election sooner. (I am not sure that either of the contenders are so deluded that they seriously think they might increase the working majority from the present 70+.) If their gamble does pay off, even with a smaller majority than the present, a new parliamentary term would give them up-to-five-years more. They are likely to refresh their agenda with a new manifesto, and argue they have a new “mandate”. The risk is, of course, that their majority is so slim it becomes impossible to pass the legislation they desire.

I haven’t paid close attention to the machinations and personalities of this present leadership contest. I am relieved that some of the extreme extremists are out, but those who remain as I write this are hardly the best for the majority of people living in this country. And then there are those they will invite into their cabinet… I’m glad Johnson’s all but gone, but I’ve long dreaded what comes afterwards.

Whoever wins, don’t expect an easing of the costs of living for most people, or a reduction in the need for food banks, or any meaningful action to slow climate change, or an improved criminal justice system, or protection of the NHS, or humane refugee policies, or anything else that the country desperately needs. Do expect more economic mismanagement, greater inequality (by any metric) and social divisions, more preventable deaths and disease, and more active disinformation if not outright dishonesty in public life. During this interim period, the government has already passed a law that when used will reduce what little power strike action has in addressing workers’ problems. It also ups potential fines against unions to a million pounds. That new law covers England, Wales and Scotland (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-law-in-place-to-allow-businesses-to-hire-agency-workers-to-pl....) Talk about a chilling effect on protest for basic labour rights. 

As wiser pundits have observed, if the new leader can’t get a grip on their parliamentary party (and none of the Conservative Party leaders have over the last three decades at least), then it is possible there will be more votes of confidence as the winner of this stoush inevitably fails to deliver what everyone in their party wants. According to Conservative Party rules, a challenge can’t come for about a year, but those rules can be changed.

I personally hope the next prime minister is inclined to call a general election sooner rather than later, and that the opposition parties get their act together to contest that election to win it. That is a huge ask, even though it shouldn’t be. If the opposition parties do win, then the real work begins to heal and repair: and that needs to start from a basis in honesty. 

Whatever happens, we are far beyond being able to complacently put up with the status quo.

22 July 2022



In her memoirs of political activism during the 1970s, Sheila Rowbotham described Clive Goodwin as raging against “the con of privileged arrogance.” (Daring to Hope, Verso 2021 hardcover edition, page 239). That phrase grabbed my attention as one that encapsulates so well the mess of UK politics today. It also resonates about a certain former President of the USA, who is agitating for the next Presidential elections two years from now. Hate to break it to you, but he hasn’t gone away.

For this column, though, I will stick to what’s happening in the UK.

19 December 2021 was the second anniversary of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. That was when he secured an 80-seat working majority for the Conservative Party in Parliament. The Conservatives have been in power since May 2010, either in coalition (with the Liberal Democrats from 2010 to May 2015), or on their own but with small majorities (2015-2017), or as a hung Parliament able to govern with the Democratic Unionist Party (2017-2019).

An 80-seat working majority is a big deal. It means that the majority, if not all, of the government’s legislative programme can clear parliamentary scrutiny with little bother. While that fact won’t necessarily save Johnson from the knives out about his behaviour, and the cover-ups, it doesn’t go away as pertinent to UK politics.

Elections are never simple things, despite what pundits will tell you. I recall a sense of a country weary of "parliamentary theatrics" with the tedious business of "getting Brexit done". Labour didn’t present a viable alternative. Too many people bought the image of Boris as an intelligent and affable man of the people, with leadership experience. The electoral system worked in the Conservatives’ favour, as it often does.

Delusions can be powerful. It’s how confidence tricks work. It’s immensely difficult to admit you’ve been conned, especially if you’ve become emotionally invested in the promise. Some people double-down on it, even when the truth is screamingly obvious.

For the record, I am no fan of Johnson, and haven’t been since just before he became Mayor of London. Prior to that, I was only dimly aware of him as a wannabe politician who turned up on several game shows I liked. Kudos to the much-missed BorisWatch Twitter account for airing many of the reasons to be cautious of Johnson in power. I also met quite a few very different people during my Civil Service career who had worked near or with Johnson, and from all that it was easy to distil his character as arrogance born of and constantly reinforced by privilege. He is an Eton boy, who went to Oxford, and has never had to work a day in his life. Paradoxically, he is good at looking busy at work, but from what I can work out he rarely puts in actual hard graft. He pursued a journalism career, and was sacked from at least one journalism gig for lying. I suspect that Johnson, like Cameron, always wanted to be PM because that’s what boys like them aspired to. They are members of a Conservative Party who believe in that Party’s rightful place in power.

I find it extraordinary that it is only now that so many people are realising what type of man Johnson is, and it isn’t pretty. Yet, even with his personal popularity plummeting in opinion polls, there are a fair few who hang on to the idea of him being smart and affable, and a good PM beleaguered by terrible circumstances. Maybe their belief is bolstered by those in the parliamentary party batting away the attacks on Johnson. I would be cautious about the loyalty of those MPs, incidentally. I suspect their actions are more to do with their own desires for power.

Johnson’s antics has lost the government three seats, but the current 77-seat working majority (which might be closer to 70 since there are a few MPs denied the Conservative Whip for various offences) is allowing this current crop of Tories to pretty much do what they want to do through Parliament, and what they want to do—and are doing—is awful. Objectively awful. People have died, and suffered, and those numbers are growing. If they pass even half of what they want to, that suffering will worsen for more and more people. No one on the receiving end of the US medical system wants the ways in which health is administered and paid for, yet it’s coming to the UK… unless it’s fought with more than platitudes and gestures.

The very nature of UK democracy is being whittled away. Johnson didn’t start that—look at what the Tories and LibDems did during their five years together, and then look at what the various minority governments did even while distracted by Brexit. Brexit itself has allowed for curtailment of freedom of movement, increased the UK’s isolation from the world, and brought a level  of chaos across the economic and social landscape. 

The PM has hoovered up powers normally exercised by Parliament, and more are on the way in various bills. Both Channel 4 and the BBC have been attacked, with credible threats to their funding. The "culture war" waged by the government and their allies is largely hot air, except for where it has shifted the politics enough to force campaigning groups like Stonewall out of many public sector organisations as "too political". The government’s social Darwinist/eugenics-fuelled twisting of health science has become starkly evident during the pandemic that continues in large part because of their views. I think it is fairly obvious that Johnson believes his survival of Covid marks him as stronger than all those who die from it. The correlation of Covid deaths in the UK with groups of people with darker skin colour exposed to decades of malign social and economic neglect probably shores up the racism of Johnson and others in government and supporting the government. Racism, of course, is driving a lot of the anti-migration laws, and no doubt some of the changes to criminal justice and civil society. Social and economic class has a lot to do with that as well. Chaos, again, is the name of the prize, and the rules of the game involve provoking groups to fight each other for the scraps from the high table.

The government is continuing its assault on the rule of law, ramping up the rhetoric and demonstrating time and time again that laws made by this government do not apply to themselves. That’s really what all the pandemic ‘lockdown’ parties furore is about: one rule for us, and one for them — in practice. Changes in the laws to reflect that Tory ideal are more complex.

This is not unique to Johnson, or even the Tories. It’s still dangerous, and they are the ones in power doing it.

What to do?

In the current system, the best way to challenge and change governments is through the ballot box. The government is working on a bill to reform the electoral system, the Elections Bill. On 21 January 2022, when I'm writing this, it’s moving through the House of Lords, but will return to the Commons for the final stages before it becomes law. One parliamentary committee sounded alarm bells over the bill as it stood in December 2021. Its present form includes proposals that will curtail the near universal suffrage the UK  currently enjoys. It’s highly likely to increase inequity than make elections more representative of the UK’s diverse population. The current Elections Bill is in line with democracy-limiting efforts in too many US states, Russia, Hungary, Poland, etc., but not as radical. If passed, which it looks like it will, the provisions will alter the way in which elections are held in the UK and in a way that will swing the favour ever more towards the Tories.

Yet, way too many people seem to be holding on to the idea that the Tories will be soundly defeated at the next General Election. An idea based, it seems, on current polling data and the way elections are held now.

More alarmingly, way too many people seem to think that if the PM is replaced, then all our answers are solved. The UK has drifted towards the idea that the PM is akin to a popular culture view of the US President. It's an idea that's warped UK politics for several decades now, and that warp seems to be worsening.

Johnson is awful for many reasons, not least for being one of too many world leaders who through privileged arrogance allowed Covid-19 to become established in the global human population where it can cheerfully replicate and mutate. It might vanish into nothing, or it could get worse as a pathogen. Regardless, as things stand now far too many people have died, and we’re only glancing at the scale of physical and psychological damage globally.

The problem is, I cannot see any Conservative Party MP who would be any better as Prime Minister for the UK as a whole even if they might be more palatable for the bit of the electorate that matters to the Conservative Party. Not one has indicated any way in which they even attempted to curtail Johnson’s excesses. All of them signed up for the anti-democratic and authoritarian legislative programme.

The next General Election is over two, nearly three years out from having to be called under the law as it currently stands. The Elections Bill is likely to change that, but I question whether the Conservative Party will call an earlier election. Even with a new leader, under the current law it’s highly unlikely they will increase their working majority in parliament. They are more likely to lose it and have to scrabble about to form a version of a coalition, and now Brexit is ‘done’ they can’t use that as a rallying cry to the right-wing. I think they will cling to power, but only just. Of course, if they no longer have to call a General Election under the current law, and not worry too much about parliamentary scrutiny... Well.

What to do?

There isn’t a single simple solution, but one step is better understanding what we’re up against. The broad collection of right-wing interests globally have taken decades of pushing to get where they are. They have a lot of money behind them, and in the UK they are in power and have been for over ten years.

However, they are not monolithic, and do not share a single, unifying vision. Delusions are powerful, but they can be shattered. What takes work is ‘de-programming’ those who bought the scam with their whole being.

What we cannot do is sit back and complacently hope things will be okay. What to do is a question for all of us to answer, and work towards in the best ways that we can.


© 21 January 2022