The next PM won't be any better – look at the MPs who want Boris Johnson out
While Johnson will probably survive this vote of no confidence, his eventual successor will be much the same
If you search on YouTube, you’ll easily find videos of pythons attacking crocodiles. The vast snake slowly wraps its crushing body around its foe, which splashes and lashes with its enormous jaws. Sometimes, the battle ends in a draw, both creatures sliding away to fight another day. Other times, the serpent wins, slowly squeezing the air out of its prehistoric prey.
In recent weeks, the Parliamentary Conservative Party has slithered around its leader’s chest. Boris Johnson has writhed and snapped, ribs occasionally cracking. Today, the snake will make its final squeeze. Whether it has the strength for the kill, we shall see.
Whatever happens, you don’t want to be in the water when the fight is over.
Johnson has been a terrible prime minister, and if he had any scruples would have resigned long ago. For me, this is less because of partygate, and more because of his disastrous record with COVID – the UK’s death rate has been twice that of Ireland and significantly higher than most of our other neighbours.
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But the idea that his replacement will be any better is just wishful thinking. The Parliamentary Conservative Party isn’t the one that elected him as leader three years ago, but now also includes the malignant growth of the 2019 election.
The Tories now count among their ranks MPs like Lee Anderson, made famous by his “extremist” remarks against Gypsy and Traveller communities and suggestions that poor people can’t cook properly, and Aaron Bell, who has been given thousands of pounds’ worth of gifts by the gambling industry while, coincidentally, opposing its regulation.
And it’s not like those opposing Johnson represent some kind of virtuous wing of the party.
Bell is one of the 54 MPs known to have submitted a letter calling for a confidence vote in the prime minister. So, too, is Steve Baker, who first came to prominence as chair of the dark money-funded European Research Group (which pushed a hard Brexit) and then led the dark money-funded COVID Recovery Group (which fought against lockdown) and now plays a leading role in the dark-money-funded Net Zero Watch (which campaigns against climate action).
Baker has also taken money from an arms company while promoting the aerospace industry in Parliament; accepted travel costs from the government of Equatorial Guinea before writing a report dismissing concerns about their human rights abuses; and accepted conference expenses from radical right-wing American groups with links to Robert Mercer and the Koch brothers.
When I put all those things to Baker in 2017, he didn’t get back to me.
There’s Mark Harper, who was David Cameron’s minister for disabled people and then the chief whip as Cameron pushed through brutal austerity. Now, Harper is the chair of the COVID Recovery Group, making him one of the leading rebels who pushed the government into its pandemic laxity. He submitted his letter of no confidence back in April.
Or there’s Roger Gale – the first Tory MP to publicly confirm sending a letter of no confidence in the prime minister – who described same-sex marriage as “Alice in Wonderland territory, Orwellian”. Or Andrea Leadsom, who last week criticised Johnson’s “failure of leadership”, and who was also responsible for scrapping subsidies for on-shore wind farms.
There is no reason to think that whoever replaces Johnson as king of the swamp will be any better
Former prime minister Theresa May hasn’t declared that she’s signed a no-confidence letter to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee of Conservative MPs, but has been a vocal opponent of her replacement. This has led some to see her as somehow better than him. Are we really going to forget the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment so quickly?
Douglas Ross, the leader of the Scottish Conservatives, is a bit of a windsock on Johnson, changing direction with each passing storm. But one thing he’s been consistent about is his long-running war against Scottish Travellers. He famously once said that, if he were prime minister for a day, his top priority would be “tougher enforcement against Gypsies and Travellers”, while, in 2018, he tried to get a Traveller family in his constituency evicted because their camp was “too visible”.
So while I suspect that the crocodile will cling to life this time, there is no reason to think that – when the snake eventually wins – whoever replaces Johnson as king of the swamp will be any better.
The current favourite to succeed Johnson is Jeremy Hunt, whose long tenure as health minister left the NHS on its knees. As my colleague Caroline Molloy put it, his record is “one of missed targets, lengthening waits, crumbling hospitals, missed opportunities, false solutions, funding boosts that vanished under scrutiny, and blaming everyone but himself”.
Second favourite is the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, whose dangerous rhetoric on the Northern Ireland protocol and trips across the Atlantic funded by the Koch Brothers would ring alarm bells in any sane democracy.
Whether or not the serpent crushes the crocodilian makes for compelling viewing for political junkies. But for the country, the big questions are about climate breakdown, the urgent need to invest in public services and the rapid decomposition of our democracy. The reality is that whether or not Johnson survives will make little difference to any of these.
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