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8th February 2022

Out of the frying pan into the fire: Who could replace BoJo?

Boris Johnson’s premiership is as tenuous as ever – but any replacement would spell the return of Thatcherism
Out of the frying pan into the fire: Who could replace BoJo?
Boris Johnson at a 2017 speech. Image: Chatham House/Flickr

As I write this, it seems quite probable that Boris Johnson will resign from his role as Prime Minister in the coming days, weeks, or months. Bookies now believe that it is unlikely that he will make it to the end of the year, and even less likely that he makes it to the next election. It feels only too easy to get swept up in the commotion; Labour have a ten-point lead in the polls (their highest since 2013), but beyond Labour, this feels like a victory for the whole country. The potential exit of a man whose lazy ineptitude is surpassed only by his history of bigotry – who facilitated the highest number of Covid cases in Europe, and partied as the public said goodbye to their loved ones over Zoom – feels like a monumental moment. But, where one head is cut off, there are several desperate to replace it, and any of the potential replacements do not bode well either for Keir Starmer or for the country.

Rishi Sunak, at 2/1, is the favourite to replace Johnson, and paints a very different political picture. Economically, he is aligned much further right than Johnson. Sunak’s new fiscal rules to try to cut government debt, and cap public investment, mean that public spending will be haemorrhaged. He intends to cut income tax, which could only become possible once public spending is limited to the point of comprehensive underfunding.

His latest budget slashed spending on social care, denied the investment needed to tackle climate change, and abandoned the spending on infrastructure that the North desperately needed. His economic policies spell disaster for a country begging for public spending rather than a return to austerity. Sunak’s image, built around personal competence, would be disastrous for Starmer, a man with neither policy nor passion.

Arguably, Starmer replaced Jeremy Corbyn simply because he was the most unobjectionable option. Labour’s leader plays the role of Joe Biden to Johnson’s Trump, but having removed Johnson, Sunak’s real political stance, business acumen, efficacy and competence would wipe the floor with Starmer. The competence that gets him into power would be the same competence that allows him to execute cuts that benefit his millionaire peers and devastate real people in real poverty.

Second on the list of those aiming for Johnson’s job is Liz Truss, whose popularity among grassroots Tory voters seems only to grow. She wields the rhetoric of free-market patriotism, and is recognised for signing several free-trade agreements post-Brexit. Praise among her supporters seems not to recognise that these deals have, at best, replicated the same deals that the UK had as part of the EU.

Truss’s carefully curated image speaks volumes: her Department for International Trade was quickly nick-named the “Department for Instagramming Truss,” by some MPs. Her desire to promote her own self-image reflects her ‘everyone-for-themselves’ politics. Her replication of Thatcher’s infamous tank photo-op is part of a larger and worrying pattern of Thatcherite ideas – promotion of freedom, liberty: founding the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs, and seeking to battle what she deems “woke” attitudes about, race, sexuality, and gender. However, just by having an ideology, she is dangerous to Starmer, whose main policy seems to be criticism of his own party, and vague attempts at pacifying those outside of it.

Other candidates would presumably include current health-secretary Sajid Javid, who is Honorary VP of the Thatcherite group Conservative Way Forward. He cites Thatcher’s action in the Falkland Islands as a “big moment” in “admiring Margaret Thatcher and her decisiveness”. Priti Patel, a self-declared ‘massive Thatcherite’ would also presumably be in the running. It seems unlikely that Patel could be the next leader of the country; her own party are too scared of her. Nevertheless, one can only imagine the catastrophe of a leader whose two most recent acts have been the Policing Act, which essentially removes our right to protest, and the Nationality and Borders bill, which breaks the Geneva Convention on several fronts. Doubtless she is a woman with passion, albeit passion that manifests itself in hatred, in comparison to Starmer’s complete woodenness. The danger she poses to Labour is nearly as big as the danger she poses to the country, were she to replace Johnson.

All this is not to say that Boris Johnson should remain in office. He has time and time again betrayed the British public, given nepotistic contracts to his friends and donors, and broken laws whilst punishing the British public for breaking those same laws.

It is just to voice concern, that if Johnson were replaced, it would be both the return of Thatcherite hyper-individualism and nationalism, and the defeat of Labour at the next election. Every viable option for PM replacement is far further to the right than Boris Johnson, and while competency is a quality to be praised, it is also to be feared. Keir Starmer was brought in as the anti-Johnson, and has barely succeeded in defeating him. Facing someone with ideology and ability, Labour will struggle. Much more importantly, the UK will suffer.

Jacob Hartley

Jacob Hartley

co-Managing Editor (News and Current Affairs)

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