Boris Johnson open thread

by John Quiggin on January 13, 2022

Boris Johnson seems to be in a heap of trouble, but from the other side of the planet it’s hard to work out much more than that. So, I thought I’d throw it open, with a few questions

Will Johnson survive as PM ?
If not who will replace him ?
Change for the better or worse?
Implications for policy responses to the pandemic, if any?

{ 41 comments }

1

Stephen Slack 01.13.22 at 6:24 am

anyone can replace boris and do a better job at eu negotiations. boris is single handily responsible for messing up the negotiations. he actually insulted macron to his face and then expected pliancy from him. unbelievable. i couldn’t care less about a silly drinks party. it’s the johnson one-up-manship machine that i have a problem with. we need a diplomat not a stand up comedian.

2

J-D 01.13.22 at 8:15 am

According to oddschecker.com, bookmakers currently have Boris Johnson odds-on to be out of politics this year: they don’t seem to be offering prices on anything more specific than the year:
https://www.oddschecker.com/politics/british-politics

Currently favoured by bookmakers to be the next Tory leader is Rishi Sunak (currently Chancellor of the Exchequer; supported Leave in the referendum); second favourite is Liz Truss (Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, and Minister for Women and Equalities; supported Remain in the referendum); after that it’s Jeremy Hunt (runner-up to Boris in the 2019 leadership election, who resigned from his position as Foreign Secretary after his defeat; supported Remain in the referendum) and Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations; ran third in both the 2016 and 2019 leadership elections; supported Leave in the referendum)–the bookies disagree about the relative favouritism of these two. There are prices offered on other people, but none of them better than ten to one.

Better or worse? It must make some difference, but they’re all Tories, aren’t they?

3

Chris Bertram 01.13.22 at 8:31 am

I think he’s toast. The real question is whether he limps on over the summer or goes now. If he goes now then any successor (probably Truss or Sunak) will get the hit of a cost-of-living crisis from April when 50% rises in energy bills kick in. But the longer he stays the more damage there is. Not sure what he will do with the rest of his life. I can’t see him being welcomed back into journalism (I could be wrong), and nobody is going to give him an international sinecure.

4

Walter Amoko 01.13.22 at 9:49 am

Johnson is certainly toast and should have never held any office, let alone public office. But why no worry, or serious protest at the truly awful legislation such as Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, that his or any successor government is seemingly able to pass with such accomplished ease. Surely, these should warrant as much attention as whether he attended a party he did not recognise as one?

5

Deborah W.A. Foulkes 01.13.22 at 10:10 am

Johnson is no longer viable as a leader. You only have to watch this week’s PMQs in the UK parliament, with numerous calls for his resignation, to see why. He may even end up in prison, or at least liable for a very hefty fine for breaking the lockdown rules his own government enacted. Alongside the two main candidates for his replacement – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – the outsider centrist and ex-military Tom Tugendhat may also throw his virtuous hat into the ring. The main argument against his candidacy, however, is his extremely hawkish stance on China, which has resulted in him being declared a persona non grata there. Not a good look for a head of state, not to be on speaking terms with the world‘s most populous country. Nevertheless, he is widely admired and respected across parliament, which is not something which can be said for many leaders in these increasingly partisan times.

6

timbo 01.13.22 at 10:27 am

(1) No.
(2) Rishi Sunak.
(3) On balance, worse, I think (that is not to imply that I think Johnson is good, of course). Yes, Sunak will appear more the professional politician, and there will be less bluster and bombast and fewer gaffes. But Sunak’s even more of an ideological Thatcherite than is Johnson, whose political commitments are held only lightly. Nor is Sunak likely to back away from any of the authoritarianism of the current Administration (e.g. the Police, Crime and Sentencing Bill). Sunak will be a shiny, new, handsome leader, but ultimately he’s going to want to pursue fiscal consolidation more determinedly than Johnson, while being just as happy with all the authoritarian stuff. That’s my sense, anyway.
(4) Not particularly, although there might be implications that follow from his more hawkish economic stance, I suppose.

7

MFB 01.13.22 at 10:43 am

I suppose the big question is what the British Conservative Party wants. They managed to survive May’s meltdown by bringing Boris in, but will they manage better if they chuck him out? In the end, if he goes, it would surely be because Boris is perceived by many Conservatives as being insufficiently right-wing, conspiratorial and generally lunatic to be their representative, and therefore they would not back him. But I doubt that this would be something which would lead the Conservative central office to act against Boris. In practice Tories normally carry on with their leaders unless there’s a bad election or a calamitous episode like losing the Norwegian war or the Brexit referendum. Meanwhile, would the right-wingers vote along with Labour, even Starmer’s Labour? Frankly, I doubt it.
This is a view from the bottom of Africa, so take it with a handful of cooking-salt, but I suspect that Johnson will ride out the current crisis, although he has been much weakened. The alternatives to him are such empty suits, such nonentities, that replacing him would certainly play into Labour’s hands. The Tories don’t want to lose the next election. I suspect they’ll dig in and hope for a miracle. But then again, I’m a pessimist about Tories.

8

MFB 01.13.22 at 10:47 am

I see that some MPs have called for Johnson to go. But, frankly, they aren’t the MPs who have any clout in the party, and most of them are hard-Brexiteer fruitcakes who bang on about the woke agenda — it wouldn’t surprise me if they weren’t also campaigners against the Russian transexual conspiracy. The kind of person who doesn’t like Johnson not because he’s incompetent or reactionary, but because he isn’t insane.

9

notGoodenough 01.13.22 at 11:33 am

My impression is that for a while now it has been less a question of if the knives will be plunged into Boris’s back, and more a question of when (and who will be first). As others allude, I suspect the calculation will basically be “how much can we blame solely on Boris before we push him overboard”.

As CB says, the money seems to be on Truss or Sunak, neither of whom have demonstrated any greater degree of moral or intellectual capabilities. I think Boris will be fine afterwards, though – my guess is that he will end up in some well-paid zero-effort positions (though suggesting that this would be related to the billions of public money shovelled into private pockets over the last two years would no doubt be irresponsible). As Truss gives the impression of not being unduly burdened with foresight and reasoning, and Sunak’s main concerns seem to be “how fast can I sell off the UK’s few remaining public institutions for as little as possible”, I doubt it will be a change for the better (though perhaps arguably more of the same rather than notably worse).

10

sherparick 01.13.22 at 2:16 pm

If the Tories believe his liabilities exceed his assets, they will defenestrate him in a heartbeat. They love (or perhaps “worship & fear” are the better words) Margaret Thatcher, but defenestrated her after the 1990 Poll Tax debacle and continued in power for another 7 years under John Major. It sounds like Boris’ usefulness may be done as far as the majority of Tories are concerned.
I’m a Yankee in Virginia, so what the hell would I know who would replace him. Truss I guess is the front-runner, but I would keep my eye on Hunt, a John Major like figure who seems “sound” if dull.
Like my view of the Republicans here in the States, I always see the change for the worse. However, was not Major as a human being an improvement over Thatcher?
The COVID-19 pandemic is the problem from Hell, especially for countries like U.S. & U.K. that have spent several decades putting priority of economic efficiency, over resiliency (with its necessary redundancy) health care in general, and public health in particular. At least the Tories, as the Governing Party, don’t have an interest is sabotaging the public health response, although significant number of their back benchers have not gotten the message. Republicans have deliberately sabotaged the response here, in particular the vaccination program where Biden apparently placed all his bets. The fall in his approval is coming from the Democratic Base which feels Biden has just adopted the “let it rip” approach to the Pandemic.

11

sherparick 01.13.22 at 2:20 pm

I would not worry about Boris’ post-PM career too much. If nothing else, he will find a lucrative sinecure within the Murdoch Media Empire, both in the U.K. and U.S., since he has served Murdoch’s interests so well.

12

Chris Armstrong 01.13.22 at 3:21 pm

I like to think his colleagues always believed he was an incompetent, lying charlatan. But his (largely unrealised) promise to make a success of Brexit won them an election, so they held their noses. The moment he tumbled in the polls was always going to mean doom. It’s not as if he’s associated with any coherent policy platform that people are attached to.

Sadly, unlike the other Chris, I think people will still be queuing up to fund his chaotic lifestyle after he leaves office. He has no scruples about who he takes money from, and no problem making promises he has no real intention of delivering on. Like Trump, he will continue to deny he did anything wrong, ever.

13

Stephen Whitehead 01.13.22 at 3:50 pm

I think he’s medium-term toast. The Sue Grey report will come out and not be entirely damning, which will take the short term pressure off with MPs. But members of the public will be entirely unconvinced, the Tories will receive a drubbing at the May locals and from that point on it’ll take about six months till he’s replaced by Liz Truss who be worse in every possible metric. (This last point is speculation underpinned by a belief in the inherent racism of the Tories and the observable tendency for the worst outcome to occur at every possible opportunity).

14

SusanC 01.13.22 at 4:23 pm

My guess for the replacement is Rishi Sunak.

Most of the possible replacements are even worse than Boris.

The whole Dominic Cummings/Barnard Castle affair should have done for Cummings and possibly Boris too at the time. The problem being not so much what Cummings did, but that all the senior government were obviously lying about it. What we have now is basically a repeat of the same scandal.

The policy implication would seem to be that if a politician is going to impose restrictions, they really can’t get away with breaking the rules that they themselves have imposed. And if the breach was in private, someone will leak it. Matt Hancock can’t even snog someone in his office without the CCTV image showing up in the newspapers. Hancock is already toast, of course.

15

PatinIowa 01.13.22 at 5:38 pm

As I listened to the BBC this morning, I was shocked to discover that the ruling class in the UK consists of entitled hypocrites who live by a different set of rules than ordinary people.

No wonder everyone’s upset. Who knew?

16

Barry 01.13.22 at 6:46 pm

The calculations must be making their heads hurt:
1) The longer he stays in office, the more sh*t can be blamed on him.
2) OTOH, if you wait to long, another Tory might make a successful attempt on him, and that one claims the crown.
3) Then again, the first attacker might take Boris down, but be weakened themselves.

17

Jameson 01.13.22 at 9:03 pm

I think that the implications for the UK’s responses to the pandemic could be very bad indeed– the race to succeed him will be a competition to see who can promise the fewest restrictions, the fastest ‘return to normal’ and the largest tax cuts. There’s no chance the UK’s next PM has anything like the covid policy Johnson has (and Sunak and Truss both would reduce restrictions out of policy as well as internal positioning).

18

Fake Dave 01.14.22 at 5:05 am

Yeah it seems virtually impossible for foreigners (or even most Brits?) to make sense of who’s up and who’s down in UK politics and which scandals will stick simply because we don’t exist in the rightwing tabloid bubble and can’t get into the venal, parochial, and self-righteous mindset it fosters. This is a body politic that will get incensed about North Sea fishing rights, cheese imports, “disrespectful” duchesses, and Jeremy Corbyn’s idiot brother, but won’t notice or care when their elected government deports citizens without due process, holds fire sales for public assets (and offices), cozies up to Russian gangsters, and picks fights with major trading partners.

I’ve never been able to figure out why some things suddenly pierce the wall of denial and self-delusion long enough to bring down governments, but it can’t have much to do with Torry hypocrisy and self-dealing as those are basically constants and I don’t think the factionalized opposition has much say in it either as about half of them will reliably side with the right against their own parties without even asking for extra bribes.

The conventional wisdom that the front bench Torries are all constantly jockeying for the big chair seems accurate enough, but that only explains how leaders get replaced, not why it happens when it does. Some of it can be explained by a pliable media landscape where scandals can be ginned up or tamped down as desired and positive or negative coverage is largely predetermined by established patronage networks. Like most conspiracy theories though, that analysis places entirely too much faith in the competence and foresight of the backroom dealers involved, most of whom are obvious hacks and dunces who only think they’re the masters of the universe because they’ve been part of the same mutual appreciation society since grade school. As tempting as it is see British democracy as a carefully stage-managed facade serving the interests of the ruling class, I just can’t square that with what we know about the… ahem… temperament of the people involved. I think it’s more likely that the system keeps shambling on because it’s too dysfunctional for even the insiders to predict or control, despite what they like to tell themselves.

19

J-D 01.14.22 at 8:24 am

Alongside the two main candidates for his replacement – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – the outsider centrist and ex-military Tom Tugendhat may also throw his virtuous hat into the ring.

Again according to oddschecker.com, the bookmakers have him variously at anywhere from fifth to ninth in the betting, with odds offered ranging from 12:1 to 25:1.

In practice Tories normally carry on with their leaders unless there’s a bad election or a calamitous episode like losing the Norwegian war or the Brexit referendum.

I think the small number of instances makes generalisations dubious. Did the troubles that afflicted Harold Macmillan, or those that afflicted Margaret Thatcher, amount to something on the scale of the Norwegian campaign, the Suez affair, or Brexit? There was no obvious calamity forcing out Iain Duncan Smith (that was, admittedly, when the party was in Opposition, when the rules are different in any case–that’s one generalisation that seems defensible).

I think he’s medium-term toast.

I don’t like it when toast gets cold. I want it hot enough to melt the butter. (This is one reason I avoid mass-produced white bread; it doesn’t hold the heat.)

The calculations must be making their heads hurt:
1) The longer he stays in office, the more sh*t can be blamed on him.
2) OTOH, if you wait to long, another Tory might make a successful attempt on him, and that one claims the crown.
3) Then again, the first attacker might take Boris down, but be weakened themselves.

In 1990, it was Michael Heseltine whose challenge launched the contest that brought Margaret Thatcher down, but he was not the eventual winner.

My level of concern about what former Prime Ministers do with their time after they’ve left politics is so close to nil that it might as well be nil (and that includes former Prime Ministers of my own country just as much as former Prime Ministers of other countries). He might not know what to do with himself? Oh boo-hoo-hoo!

20

Tm 01.14.22 at 9:33 am

Who’ll succeed BoJo is the kind of question that horserace journalists obsess about. The only relevant answer is, we’ll find out soon enough.

Why don’t we ask: how can the left take advantage of the weakness of the Tories?

21

Doug 01.14.22 at 3:10 pm

Didn’t Daniel Davies make a model for this, back when the PM getting tossed was Tony Blair? And wasn’t it kinda scarily accurate?

I haven’t been able to find it in the archives, but memory suggest it’s in there somewhere.

22

RobinM 01.14.22 at 6:27 pm

I think the answer to your question, Tm @ 20, is that no one quite knows what the British left is anymore. Pasokification in progress? Following in the footsteps of the French left? The political condition of the UK is just so much worse than Johnson and his misdeeds. There is no alternative to a situation that demands an alternative.

23

TheSophist 01.14.22 at 7:47 pm

Is it bad that half of my brain thinks that Liz Truss wrote “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”?

24

Tm 01.14.22 at 7:48 pm

RobinM 22: Thanks but I was precisely hoping not to get that kind of answer.

25

J-D 01.15.22 at 12:14 am

Who’ll succeed BoJo is the kind of question that horserace journalists obsess about. The only relevant answer is, we’ll find out soon enough.

Why don’t we ask: how can the left take advantage of the weakness of the Tories?

As far as I can tell, most comments here are responding to prompts either from John Quiggin’s original post or from other comments. Certainly that’s what I’ve done. Why John Quiggin began with asking who might succeed Boris but not with asking how the left can take advantage of the weakness of the Tories, I can’t say.

Now that you’ve asked the question, though, I respond that I have no ideas about how the left can take advantage of the weakness of the Tories. Do you have any?

26

burritoboy 01.15.22 at 2:51 am

“Why don’t we ask: how can the left take advantage of the weakness of the Tories?”

What is the sound of one hand clapping? There is no left in the UK to take advantage of anything. Thus, there is no weakness of the Tories – there is no opposition party for them to be weak compared to. (I suppose the Tories could theoretically self-disintegrate……)

27

nastywoman 01.15.22 at 6:57 am

at least ‘Bojo the Clown’ will have to consider –
that THE VIRUS has
and
had
changed his Life in a way…

no
Kant
kan’t
comprehend?

28

nastywoman 01.15.22 at 7:00 am

and kan you guys believe it –
that autokorrect changed my komprehend
into
comprehend?

29

Tim Worstall 01.15.22 at 8:11 am

The current gossip – and no more than that – is that Boris is in deep doo doo. The thing being “What breaks through?” and there’s a definite serendipity to that. “Suitcase of booze” might be it.

For those not linked into Westminster. Much happens there that the real world doesn’t care about. Tempests, teacups, all the time. Party this, party that, might break through into the general populace, might not. But one little episode, at one of these No 10 “parties”, someone went off to get more booze from the CoOp around the corner. Came back with “suitcase of booze” which is a phrase, fact, that is being widely joked about. And that might be that very thing that does that breaking through.

If it starts turning up in Private Eye, or Have I Got New For You, that’s the same politically involved class gossiping. If it becomes a joke on X-Factor (or whatever) and the audience gets the reference then that’s a real political problem. Current gossip is that it might well…..

30

John Quiggin 01.15.22 at 8:45 am

TM @20 As the OP made clear, I have no idea of whether Johnson will go at all, and if so, how the government change as a result. Without finding out something about this, I have no idea how to think about a left response, if indeed there is an effective left to respond.

31

David J. Littleboy 01.15.22 at 1:02 pm

“Is it bad that half of my brain thinks that Liz Truss wrote “Eats, Shoots and Leaves”?”

No. Not bad at all. As long as the other half remembers the dedication: “To my parents, Ayn Rand and God.”

32

SusanC 01.15.22 at 7:55 pm

“Suitcase of beer” doesn’t sound bad to me, as long as it was for a lot of people and wasn’t just for Boris’ personal consumption.

After all, prepandemic our grad students arranged a barrel of beer (plus other alcohol for those who didnt like beer) on numerous occasi9ns. (Feel free to imagine the fraternity from National Lampoon’s Animal House at this point. Now, if Boris and co. were wearing togas it might be a bigger issue…)

33

SusanC 01.15.22 at 8:00 pm

Come to think of it, Boris as the John Belushi character from Animal House kind of fits (and in the docu-spoof follow up to the movie Bluto becomes President of the United States).

34

SusanC 01.15.22 at 11:04 pm

I’m glad I’m not the only one who confuses Liz Truss with Lynne Truss…

35

John Quiggin 01.15.22 at 11:45 pm

“Eats, Shoots and Leaves” The Australian version (which relies on local dialect) is ruder as is the explanatory joke.

36

J-D 01.16.22 at 3:20 am

There is no left in the UK to take advantage of anything. Thus, there is no weakness of the Tories – there is no opposition party for them to be weak compared to. (I suppose the Tories could theoretically self-disintegrate……)

As the OP made clear, I have no idea of whether Johnson will go at all, and if so, how the government change as a result. Without finding out something about this, I have no idea how to think about a left response, if indeed there is an effective left to respond.

Is it worth pointing out the difference between ‘the left is too ineffective to respond’ and ‘there is no left’? I have no information about the strength or weakness of the left in the UK, so I can’t say that ‘the left is not strong enough to take advantage of the weakness of the Tories’, but it’s the kind of thing that might be true. ‘There is no left’ is the kind of thing that can only be true where there is no right; the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have meaning only in relation to each other, so anywhere there is one there must, by definition, be the other.

37

Giles W 01.16.22 at 3:36 pm

My edition of “Eats Shoots and Leaves” is written by Lynne Truss, and is dedicated “To the striking Bolshevik printers of St Petersburg”

38

Joe Hodcarrier 01.17.22 at 12:33 am

‘‘There is no left’ is the kind of thing that can only be true where there is no right’.
So after the Reichstag Fire (1933) there was neither Right nor Left?

Johnson and his rotten crew broke the Lockdown, repeatedly. A ‘cultural’ purge that doesn’t include the Prime Minister would be stupid, or an instance of Führerprinzip. Enough already.

39

David J. Littleboy 01.17.22 at 7:13 am

Giles, that’s a different book. That book wasn’t written by a right-wing hack and isn’t about a misbehaving Tory PM.

40

J-D 01.17.22 at 10:25 pm

‘‘There is no left’ is the kind of thing that can only be true where there is no right’.
So after the Reichstag Fire (1933) there was neither Right nor Left?

You wouldn’t use the description ‘left’ for the underground networks of the SPD and the KPD? Again, there’s a difference between ‘the left was weak’ and ‘the left didn’t exist’.

41

wa ki 01.17.22 at 11:33 pm

Depends on how Boris goes out the door? If a Tory “coup” then he is gone mumbleing and grumbling. This may place his expected generous sinecure of alms from the murdoches, or Putin, decide to throw his way at risk.
Whereas if he arrenges an “organized” departure he may be required by his owners to invoke Article 16 of Brexit treaty, thus effectively killing any cooperation from the EU for the foreseeable future, kill all funding for BBC, stack all appointed positions on advisory panels etc with nutcases (like demented donnie did) and finish gutting the NHS with the aim of “privatizing health care to be more like the US.
Those and other destabilizeing moves the Tory’s and their Russian oligarch financial owners have been drooling over.
That would take the heat and onus off of his replacement.
So far it appears the two most mentioned replacements Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are policy wise just as foul but not quite as personally offensive.

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