Will a divided Party get the better of Boris?

Fiona Townsley

January 10, 2022

If Boris Johnson’s New Year’s resolution was to increase party unity, it has failed faster than most people’s gym memberships.

As 2021 came to a close, the Conservative party was in a pretty shambolic state, thanks to a momentous rebellion, the resignation of Lord Frost, and the reputational damage caused by numerous allegations of sleaze and hypocrisy.

Cheering from the Tory seats during Prime Minister’s Questions last week may have presented a united front but it’s not difficult to see through the façade – 2022 may be a new year, but the Prime Minister faces the same divisions. And while his decision to refrain from introducing further Covid restrictions over Christmas may have appeased some, his critics have quickly moved onto the next contentious issue: the cost of living crisis.

This is the topic on everyone’s mind, created by a combination of rising inflation, high taxes and spiralling energy costs. And it’s only going to increase as the health and social care levy comes into action in April – a levy which is likely to be even less popular than when it was first announced.

If a reminder is needed, this particular tax will take money from the hands of the working person, and throw it towards a broken social care system – but only after it attempts to plug the holes in the NHS.

It has already been leaked that Jacob Rees-Mogg has called for the hike to be abandoned. So, while it’s comforting that there are still some Conservative MPs who don’t want to preside over a high tax, high spend economy, it’s alarming that the Downing Street residents are not among them.

The divisions within the party are even more evident among those not bound by cabinet constraints. Dissent among free market backbenchers has not abated. Twenty MPs wrote to the Prime Minister last weekend urging him to cut VAT on energy bills and remove the environmental levy.

With pressure growing, if Johnson is to remain leader he either needs to bring his backbenchers back into line or start making concessions – he cannot continue to rely on the Labour vote to pass policies antithetical to his own Party’s values.

Indeed, the race for the leadership seems to have already begun with two clear front runners: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak. That is, unless we see a late entry from newly infamous Thatcherite Molly Mae.

As the minister campaigning most openly, Liz Truss is the one to beat. She believes in a low tax, small state, free market economy, appealing to the rebellious libertarian wing of the party. Recently pictured like a modern day Thatcher on a tank in Estonia, she has made no effort to hide her ambitions. Within the party she is respected as someone able to get the job done, as we saw with her success as international trade secretary.

Truss has managed to survive in the cabinet under Cameron, May and Johnson, showing her resilience, experience and an ability to negotiate the politics of politics. Her popularity among party members is unmatched, having been ranked favourite minister for over a year.

However, outside the party it’s a different story. If she wants to make it to 10 Downing Street she will need to increase her public profile – only 51 per cent of the public had heard of her in September. Her increased responsibility following Lord Frost’s resignation might aid this, although her new position could be seen as a ploy from the Prime Minister to give her an unwinnable task and hinder her advance towards his seat. However, if Truss is able to make it out of the Brexit negotiations unscathed she will be challenging to beat into Downing Street.

Rishi, by contrast, burst into the cabinet with his pledge to ‘do whatever it takes’ in March 2020. He was the golden boy of the pandemic, and immediately recognised as a future leader. However, Rishi may have peaked too early, as his popularity has been slowly declining since September 2020. He may claim to believe in lower spending and lower taxes, but his policies have resulted in the highest tax burden in 70 years, with the pandemic quickly becoming a less viable excuse.

And while the October budget could have seen him return to his ideological principles, instead, he has maintained the spending phenomenon of the current government.

It appears that Rishi’s allegiance to Boris has trapped him into introducing policies that he claims instinctively to oppose. It is this relationship, which originally put him in the spotlight, that will hinder his personal ambitions. In order to establish his own platform, Rishi will have to leave the sinking ship of Boris Johnson.

Although I’m not a betting person, my money’s on Liz Truss. If we see the downfall of Boris Johnson, the public won’t want to elect his ‘yes man’ as his replacement.


Written by Fiona Townsley

Fiona Townsley is a Research Associate at the Adam Smith Institute.

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