Boris Johnson’s resignation is an echo of a deeper crisis
The last week in British politics has been one of high drama. Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced into a resignation, of sorts, following the departure of a number of senior government ministers, a slew of junior ministers, and the general loss of support of many in his party. The manoeuvring is already underway to see who will replace him as leader of the Conservative Party and become the next Prime Minister.
Whoever replaces Johnson will not differ markedly in terms of substantive policy, and some of the likely candidates would be more right wing than Johnson. This game of millionaires musical chairs will consume the media in Britain over the coming months, but while the disruption and drama caused by Johnson’s resignation is newsworthy, it is not the real story.
As the latest in a line of political and constitutional crises that have characterised British politics for years, Johnson’s resignation points to much deeper problems in British society - problems that the British political system and class have thus far proven incapable of solving.
In the general election in 2015, the then Prime Minister David Cameron told the public that they faced a simple choice: stability and strong government with the Conservatives, or chaos with Ed Miliband and Labour. Since then, we have had the Brexit vote, accelerated economic decline, growing inequality, two general elections, and the resignation of three Conservative PMs.
''In the meantime, the immediate beneficiaries of Johnson’s resignation will, ostensibly, be the Labour Party, who may see a short-term jump in their ratings. But the real winners will be the Conservatives themselves, who can now wash off the grime and sleaze associated with Johnson and re-package themselves as the strong, competent, natural party of government.''
All of this speaks to a much deeper malaise in British society. In fact, we can go further and say it reflects the deep, structural crisis afflicting global capitalism. This crisis has been noted by many commentators over the years, but recently the OECD published a report highlighting how growing inequality, climate breakdown, declining wages and living standards, and otiose democratic institutions were fuelling a general, global climate of discontent and instability.
Since 2008 this deep structural crisis has played out around the world - with revolutions, the emergence of authoritarian strong men, and left-wing populist projects in different places. But fundamentally, the system has limped on - inequality has continued to grow, social conditions to worsen, and democratic structures proven themselves increasingly incapable of responding to the deepening crisis.
In Britain, Johnson was both a product and now a victim of this crisis. The Brexit vote and the short lived Corbyn moment, which intimated a modest social democratic response to the crisis, were reflections of the deep crisis in British politics. The British ruling class opted for Johnson as a populist antidote to Corbyn and mobilised behind him (along with the entire mainstream media and most of Corbyn’s parliamentary colleagues in the Labour Party) to kill of Corbyn and the possibility of a reformist, social democratic exit from the crisis.
Having served his primary role, Johnson’s government was then confronted with the immense challenge of Covid-19, and then the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On the Covid front Johnson and his government failed the majority of the people in Britain miserably, and Britain has recorded one of the highest death rates for Covid in the world, so far.
The Covid outbreak was an opportunity to hand billions to the already rich, to further impoverish workers, and to attack people’s rights. In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine Johnson, along sang from the jingoistic, militarist NATO hymn sheet, and this perhaps bought him some time.
But a series of scandals dogged Johnson and his government. The straw that broke the camel’s back was a sordid case involving what appears to be a series of assaults by a serial sex pest, whose actions Johnson knew about but nonetheless appointed him to a crucial government role. When the scandal broke, Johnson was caught in the web of his effortless mendacity, and his dishonesty over this scandal is the proximate cause that provided the catalyst for his resignation.
Johnson’s resignation was ambiguous, and it seems he wants to stay in post until his successor is chosen later this year. There are fears that if he’s allowed to do this, he will use it as an opportunity to fight a rear-guard action and somehow hold onto his role. This seems unlikely, his exit may be drawn out and undignified, but that’s nothing new for him.
It’s likely that he will be replaced, almost certainly by someone more acceptable to the sensibilities of middle England, but who will pursue the same right-wing agenda on migrants, workers’ rights, and in international affairs.
But whoever succeeds Johnson, or even if his resignation leads to an early general election which Labour (now virtually indistinguishable from the Conservatives) wins - none of this will solve the fundamental crisis that besets both British society and its electoral politics. Whatever short-term fix is cobbled together in response to Johnson’s resignation, the subterranean currents of structural crisis and class conflict will continue to rend the British establishment.
The apparent solidity and peace following the defeat of Corbyn was always just an illusion.
The open question remains, what will emerge from this. From the Conservative side it will likely be, as Johnson’s government already showed, increased authoritarianism, attacks on workers, and minority groups. The centre-left (if that even holds as a descriptor), in the form of the Labour Party, has capitulated to this new common sense - the system must be preserved at all costs.
But, in Britain the trade unions are beginning to respond to the plight of their members by mounting a fightback against the social crisis. The RMT and Unite under Sharon Graham are showing the way, and have won both major victories for their members, and public support for the cause of striking workers. But as of yet the trade union movement as a whole is still too wedded to the dead hand of the Labour Party.
The unions are articulating an embryonic social response, but the political dimension of it is not yet clear. On the political front there are a range of umbrella groups from the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition, to the People’s Assembly who provide the potential basis for a coherent political break with the status quo, and a focal point for an emergent politics adequate to the scale of the crisis.
In the meantime, the immediate beneficiaries of Johnson’s resignation will, ostensibly, be the Labour Party, who may see a short-term jump in their ratings. But the real winners will be the Conservatives themselves, who can now wash off the grime and sleaze associated with Johnson and re-package themselves as the strong, competent, natural party of government. A safe pair of hands in a period of crisis, or to modify Cameron’s hollow promise from 2015 – strong, stable (sleaze free) government.
In the final analysis Johnson’s resignation is not a crisis, but merely an echo of the deeper crisis of British society and the political system. Crises are always also opportunities, and given the deepening cost of living crisis, accelerating climate breakdown, and growing working class militancy, the departure of Tory Britain’s “strong man” may provide space for the rebirth of a radical alternative to the status quo upheld by both the Conservatives and Labour - for a politics that takes the causes of the crisis serious, and works to solve it in the interests of the many, not the few.
Paul O'Connell teaches law at SOAS University of London.
Follow him on Twitter: @pmpoc
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