The history books will tell that the Boris Johnson government was hit by two humiliations in December 2021, two years after being elected. The first has been the unprecedented rebellion of 101 Conservative deputies against the health passport regulations. The second, two days later, the defeat in the North Shropshire by-elections at the hands of the Liberal Democrats.
But, as we approach the start of 2022, the combined consequences of those setbacks today matter more than the events themselves. Together, both defeats have rewritten the script for the remainder of his government’s term.
We could see it in the lasting impact of what Johnson did on Monday. The prime minister came out of an emergency meeting with his cabinet on the omicron wave and later announced… nothing. As other governments across Europe scrambled to save their healthcare systems from saturation, Boris Johnson’s decided it would take no more action before Christmas. But nevertheless, Johnson insisted in which, if things change, “we will not hesitate to take action” (he is expected to announce more measures in the coming days in England as Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have done).
Monday’s outcome was the embodiment of hesitancy, over the decision not to take the kind of measures that were expected to be approved at the emergency cabinet meeting. It was not the fruit of a thoughtful consensus. It turned out that the cabinet was divided in half, and still is. Today the UK has a government incapable of governing.
This is the direct result of Johnson being currently held hostage by the Tory MPs and his cabinet ministers, who in turn are emboldened by the verdict of the voters in Shropshire. Therefore, it is also important to see what has happened this week as a harbinger of the new and potentially terminal phase of the Johnson Administration if it is unable to make the necessary decisions.
Without turning back
All governments that fail end up reaching a similar point, after which everything goes downhill. Today British politics are wondering if the Johnson government has reached that point. The evidence suggests that, in its own way, it has, and that consequently British voters are open to something new.
More than 40 years ago, during the 1979 elections that brought Margaret Thatcher to power, Labor Prime Minister Jim Callaghan famously observed such moments. “There are times,” Callaghan told his advisers, “maybe once every 30 years, when there is a radical change in politics. So it doesn’t matter what you say or what you do. There is a change in what the public does. he wants and what he approves of. I suspect that radical change is now taking place and that it is for Mrs Thatcher. ”
Callaghan’s opinion can be disputed in some important respects. There is no doubt that there was a great shift in political economy after 1979, contrasting with the post-1945 world in which Callaghan came to power. But the public never greeted Thatcherism with the degree of enthusiasm that Thatcher’s run of electoral successes during the 1980s may have suggested.
However, he was right that the Labor governments of the 1970s had lost the public’s confidence in important respects, and that Thatcher was the favorite to win in 1979. And he was right that once a government reaches such period, you have relatively little chance of regaining the old edge.
The inflection point
It is not clear what can happen. The circumstances differ greatly. Theresa May’s government began to fail early on, when it squandered its majority in the 2017 elections. David Cameron’s government, by contrast, was doomed only at the end, when Cameron lost the Brexit vote. If he had won, Cameron might still be prime minister.
With other governments, the tipping point was more gradual. Even John Major’s, which in hindsight seems to have ended after Black Stock Market Wednesday in 1992, might have survived had it not been for Labor’s drive. It seems more obvious now than then that Tony Blair’s authority was destroyed by Iraq: after all, he won the election again.
Gordon Brown’s trajectory seemed more predictable when, shortly after arriving in Downing Street, he humiliatingly flirted with calling a snap election. In 2009, I was at a dinner party with the great lawyer Tom Bingham, who turned around and said, “I think the country decided two years ago that it will need a new government when the time comes.” In that, as in so many other things, he was right.
December 2021 seems to be such a time for Johnson. It’s hard to recover from the reputation-shattering stories – and more may come – unleashed in North Shropshire. That the football fans Already darts mock a prime minister is not a good sign. If there are poor results in the local elections next year, his leadership within the party will be questioned again.
Perhaps what Attorney Bingham said applies today as well, as it did after 2007. The country has the feeling that it will need a new government when the time comes. If so, it may not matter too much who leads the Tory party in the next election. The crucial question will be whether the country will have enough confidence in the Labor alternative.
Translation by Julián Cnochaert.