After a brief spell where he returned to being the unquestioned leader of his party, there are once again murmurs around the Tory leader and his position.
In the middle of the pandemic fiasco last year, when the government’s authority was totally shot and it’s polling was at its worst, there were pretty severe questions being asked behind closed doors within the Conservative party. Keir Starmer looked like a threat and the Tories began to murmur about Rishi Sunak being the successor within the year, or at least before the next election.
Once the vaccine rollout kicked in, and self inflicted Labour divisions occupied Starmer’s attention, Johnson and his party’s ratings bounced back to the stratosphere, and the cracks were papered over, with the assumption back to being Johnson as the unquestioned leader of the party with enough authority to continue leading it through the next election cycle and further is he wished and continued to deliver.
Well, as the Tory divisions have come back into the open, on TV panel shows, newspaper columns, and the general national conversation, with a Prime Minister who’s ratings are falling, who’s authority with the country is waining, and who is taking positions consistently that upset his own backbenchers, those doubts are coming back to the fore, with the question of Tory succession back on the table. It’s still very likely Johnson will lead his party into the next general election, unless the polling consistently slides and Labour opens up a clear lead; but it’s no longer guaranteed, and the big job for Johnson rolling into conference season 2021 is internal party management, something he has to juggle while running a government pandemic response.
There are once again some pretty ripe opportunities for the opposition coming up. The honeymoon is over, we’ve had the massive vaccine success, and going ahead there are hard choices about policy and delivering that will really dent the Tory vote. The backtracking on HS2 and planning reforms in particular will anger the blue collar base Johnson is trying to build up, as he retreats back into his conformance Tory shell in an attempt to keep his own party together. Above all else, the HS2 project being backtracked on would be absolutely disastrous for both the future of trip infrastructure in this country, and any supposed promises to level up the country, representing a very material example of how surface deep levelling up really is to these people.
Heading out of summer and into conference season 2021 is Labour’s time for big ideas. If Labour spends this time waging a purge of the left and factional warfare, they’ll head into the autumn worse off than when they entered it; if they put together a coherent and compelling message to the public, with radical commitments to reshape the British economy, they’ll be on the up again, and much more united, heading into 2022. Commitments shouldn’t be technocratic, they should be simple propositions based upon the themes of democratisation (electoral reform, federal UK, English devolution), and security (building on Buy British and workplace rights work, Basic Income, four day week).
Rishi Sunak has apparently being disputing the PM’s travel restrictions (absolutely ridiculous, does he want variants galore?) but the worse part is plenty within the party very enthusiastically agree with the sentiment and are making the same demands increasingly. Sunak has also apparently been talking to Crosby (the Tory pollster who won them 2015) and all this adds up to two things: firstly a growing rift for a Number 10 and 11 team in lockstep at the start of the pandemic, and secondly Sunak seemingly increasingly pitching himself internally as the alternative candidate for Tories fed up of Johnson.