By Mark Buckley
There will be no tears shed by the victims of Boris Johnson whenever he goes, least of all among the bereaved of the 175,000 people he has condemned to die. However, the current configuration of British politics means the threat to Johnson is from forces to his right. As a result, whoever is in Number 10 the period immediately ahead is likely to be characterised by even greater attacks on the working class and the oppressed.
Johnson and the Tory Party have not suddenly become unpopular, so this is not a crisis of ‘party-gate’ as the right wing media likes to claim. The huge and exceptional death toll in the pandemic, the wide understanding that it is not going to end soon and the slump in living standards caused by renewed austerity are all factors eroding Tory support.
To illustrate this, Johnson’s highest ever approval rating was +40 (YouGov data) in mid-April 2020 and has been falling ever since to -48 at the end of last year. Similarly, the Tory party polling lead peaked at 11 points (43 vs 32 according to Politico poll of polls) in late May 2020 and is now a deficit of 8 points.
Polls also show the factors pushing down the approval rating and the poll rating are the disastrous handling of the pandemic and the renewed imposition of austerity which has led to sharply falling living standards.
Both these factors are set to persist. Therefore, it is extremely important to the ruling class that its propaganda creates the myths that the public approves of the government handling of the pandemic and that is no austerity policy.
The propaganda is persistent and has gained wide currency not least because it is completely unchallenged by the Labour leadership. Throughout the crisis Starmer has supported the government’s catastrophic response to the pandemic. He has also issued no challenge on the key questions of austerity; rising taxes, National Insurance and energy bills, while pay and benefits are cut.
Starmer’s energies have instead been directed at ditching his own election pledges and fighting the Corbynistas. His banner is Zero Corbyn, not Zero Covid.
As a result, it is rightist opposition to Johnson which has mobilised effectively and set the political agenda. This Tory right, centred around the Covid Research Group but including much wider forces has been supported by the Telegraph, Mail and BBC in particular.
Its central agenda is entirely pro-business, anti-public health and opposed to even the mildest restrictions on the spread of the virus. This even includes opposition to face masks. Tory MPs who are preparing to vote for the draconian Police Bill and who have already passed into law impunity for state agents in committing torture, rape and murder have farcically complained that mask mandates are a fundamental breach of human rights.
They acted to block Johnson from introducing even the mildest measures at the end of last year, when SAGE had briefed these were imperative and voted against them in parliament. Johnson’s rivals extended this to a Cabinet veto.
In response, Johnson has cut self-isolation to 5 days against medical advice and has announced all restrictions will go at the end of January. Almost 3,000 people have died in the first 2 weeks of 2022. Johnson is prepared to let more people die to hang on to his own job. The ‘red meat’ to cling on will also include killing more refugees in the Channel.
Politically, this means the occupant is Number 10 is to some extent irrelevant in the next period. Either Johnson or his successor will pursue a eugenicist agenda. They will also maintain the project of transforming society in a reactionary direction, greater authoritarianism and racism, fewer democratic rights and deepening austerity. The prospects of any substantial action on climate change are remote and we should expect more Cold War ‘scares’ such as the fake furore over Christine Lee.
Socialists should be clear. There is nothing progressive to be expected from the turmoil in the Tory Party. The underlying factors causing it, the policies of the Covid death toll and austerity, are supported by all possible rivals. And Starmer’s decision to politically shadow Johnson in a literal sense means there is currently only very limited left or even progressive pressure on these murderous charlatans.