After his party’s historical defeat in the North Shropshire parliamentary by-election on 16 December, PM Boris Johnson is on the ropes. That said, he is not knocked out, even if his approval ratings are at an all time low: for the time being he is going nowhere. So, contrary to the new Lib-Dem MP of N Shropshire’s election-day quip, the “party” is not yet over.
What has not helped Johnson however, is that his fellow Brexit rat, Lord Frost, decided to scramble off his ship with immediate effect - which Frost says has nothing to do with his best mate Johnson’s leadership, nor Brexit (believe that one!), but his opposition to Covid restrictions. No doubt this is his way of defending the “entrepreneurial freedom” he is so adamant about, meaning the freedom to screw the labouring classes of his beloved island, solely for the benefit of islanders of his own class.
For now, the Omicron surge - or “tidal wave” as Johnson called it - has possibly given the prime minister a lucky break, despite the fact that his Plan B measures against Covid caused that sensational 99-strong rebellion of his MPs, in the name of liberty, individual freedom and their right to go where they please. “Rights” which these hypocrites are not prepared to extend to those beneath them in the “lower” classes - and, by the way, certainly not to the refugees who risk death in the Channel because they are denied them.
But at least Johnson can avoid confronting his critics by spending his time in vaccination clinics, bumping elbows and “focusing” on the NHS. According to him, the “get boosted now” campaign remains the “only” way out of the pandemic. Even if it isn’t, really.
However it is not going to be easy for Johnson to escape, especially from those in his own ranks, some of whom are survivors of his 2019 pre-election purge of the moderates before his “landslide” victory.
Like (Sir!) Roger Gale, for instance, a veteran Tory backbencher (and former Remainer), who, on the morning after the by-election, told Radio 4: “I think this has to be seen as a referendum on the prime minister’s performance... [he] is now in last orders time. Two strikes already: one earlier this week in the vote in the Commons and now this. One more strike and he’s out”. Scots MP Ruth Davidson, used a similar public house allusion, saying that he is now “drinking in Last Chance Saloon”.
Johnson however, while saying that he takes “personal responsibility for his party’s defeat” and that he “understands people’s frustrations”, nevertheless blames “all those other things” which the media and his opponents have been lining up against him over the past weeks - which he considers are trivialities. In particular, last year’s Christmas parties at 10 Downing Street, Conservative HQ, and other government offices, when parties were banned and transgressing his own government’s social distancing rules on several other occasions as well.
But as those who spoke to voters on the streets of Oswestry in North Shropshire reported, it was precisely this issue which upset them the most: the “one rule for them and another rule for us”, and double standards when it came to sticking to Covid restrictions. The public has not forgotten the Dominic Cummings' trip to Barnard Castle during the lockdown in 2020, even if Cummings has long since departed from the PM’s custody...
Tory bum removed after 188 years...
So what were the damning results of this “historic” by-election, where for the first time since the creation of this seat in 1832, the Conservatives lost it?
The pundits tell us that the Liberal Democrats managed “the 7th biggest by-election swing - 34.2% - in modern political history”: their candidate, Helen Morgan, won 17,957 votes (47.1%), beating the Conservative candidate’s 12,032 (31.6%), by almost 6,000 votes. In 2019, the (very) hard-Brexiteer Tory, Owen Paterson won 37,444 votes in this predominantly farming constituency, gaining a majority of 23,000. So this was indeed a resounding Tory defeat.
Of course the Lib Dems also picked up a lot of Labour votes. But it is clear from the results that voters had used their votes tactically, deliberately to give Johnson a bloody nose. And what’s more, the Tory defeat was all the more decisive given the 46.1% turnout - abnormally high for a by-election.
Of course, it could be said that the Liberal Democrats did not win the seat, but rather that Boris Johnson lost it, thanks to his recent shenanigans. But in fact the Lib Dems threw all their forces into campaigning. After all, it is almost always through using the opportunity of by-elections that this 3rd party in British politics has been able to gain extra parliamentary seats, given the fact that the “first past the post” electoral system, in normal circumstances, is a two-party game.
Already this June, the Lib Dems had surprised everyone by taking the “safe” Tory seat of Chesham and Amersham. Despite the huge Tory majority gained in 2019 (or even because of it), the Lib Dems are banking on the political “law” that the party in power does badly in by-elections - and they flooded North Shropshire with 500 canvassers.
Their election leaflet had a colour picture of former Tory mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey’s Christmas party last year during Tier 2 restrictions. The campaign also exposed the crisis in the NHS ambulance service, which, since cuts and contracting out, even before Covid, has been failing badly. Not that the Lib Dems ever spoke out against this NHS privatisation: it was more a matter of how it was done, than being against it. Indeed, this party governed in coalition with the Tories from 2010 to 2015 when former Lib Dem leader, Vince Cable, was Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, advancing austerity and privatisation together.
Their candidate also made much of the fact that she was a “local”, pointing out that her Tory rival was a “foreigner” from Birmingham, who the parochially conservative majority farming community - which had overwhelmingly supported Brexit in 2016 - could not possibly approve of!
Brexit coming back to bite him
There is an irony in the fact that this agricultural, Brexit-voting Tory constituency decided to support the firmly anti-Brexit Lib Dems. But Brexit, precisely, is likely to be another strong reason why they did.
Not only in Shropshire, but across the whole country, many farmers feel they were deceived by Johnson’s government over Brexit. Lord Frost, the right-hand Brexit man and chief negotiator with the EU whose “no surrender” line has prevented compromise over the Northern Ireland protocol so far, had good reason to wash his hands of it at this point. Now the necessary surrender over the Irish border-in-the-sea will be submitted by former Remainer, Liz Truss, Johnson’s new Foreign Secretary. Frost can thus keep his hardline record clean, while Truss might well have to damage her own, at least with some of the party faithful, as she and others line up for a future leadership contest.
Mark Tufnell, president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA), which represents farmers, rural landowners and agribusiness, calls Brexit “one of the biggest upheavals in agriculture since the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846”. He continues: “And of course after the Corn Law repeal we then went into an agricultural depression that lasted all the way from the late 1800s through into the 1900s and the war period”. While that might be slight exaggeration, the loss of Corn Law protection (cf. EU protection) for agricultural exports and the free trade this ushered in, has already seen a parallel post-Brexit with British lamb and beef - only slightly ameliorated by the special trade agreements just negotiated with Australia and the USA.
Under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), farmers have received £3bn a year in payments; a handout based on the amount of land they farmed. Post-Brexit these payments are being phased out, to be replaced with subsidies from the British government called “public money for public goods”: if farmers restore nature, nurture the soil, improve air and water quality, and provide habitats for wildlife, they will get taxpayer-funded support under a system of environmental land management contracts (ELMs).
However, while the EU CAP payments have already been cut by up to 25% this year (they will end completely by 2026), the conditional compensation from the government is not forthcoming. There have been several other upsets, including the loss of cheap seasonal farm workers from the EU: crops have rotted unpicked; pigs have had to be culled as there were no abattoir workers, and what is more Johnson even made a stupid joke in public about the loss of these pigs. Unsurprisingly, farmers feel that the government hasn’t got a clue.
A needless by-election
An even greater irony is that the North Shropshire by-election which caused Johnson such a headache, need not have happened. His very close friend and colleague, Owen Paterson, who vacated the seat was not even obliged to do so, despite the “egregious (=deplorable, outrageous, flagrant) conduct” he was found guilty of. He did so voluntarily on 4 November, resigning “from the cruel world of politics” after the ill-conceived and clumsy attempt by his fellow Tory MPs to try to save his reputation by bending parliamentary rules. A case of serial unintended consequences..!
To recall the facts: Paterson had been found guilty by the Parliamentary Standards Committee, of lobbying on behalf of two Northern Irish companies, Randox Laboratories (currently contracted by the government to do Covid testing) and Lynn’s Farm Foods (to help it escape liabilities). He had received at least £500,000 for his trouble. The penalty decided upon was a mere 30-day suspension from parliament. Paterson claimed it was unfair and that the Committee had not heard all the evidence. So when his suspension was due to be put to the vote by the House of Commons, both back and front-bench Tories rushed to his rescue. However, the fact that they did so, fully backed by Johnson, probably had less to do with any real sympathy for Paterson, than a desire to cover their own backs. The “rescue charge” was led by the reactionary Brexiteer and senior former minister Andrea Leadsom, who tabled an amendment which would have abolished the Standards Committee altogether and created a new one, with completely different personnel, rules and standards - and with an inbuilt Tory majority!
And no wonder, in the light of all the contracts given out by Tory ministers and MPs to friends, donors and families over the past two years! The excuse, which has so far not been formally contested, has been that the haste required by the pandemic justified a waiving of normal tendering procedures. An estimated £17.1-bn-worth of Covid contracts (Randox Laboratories has £15.9m!), were awarded by July 2020! So it is little wonder that the Conservative MPs were so keen to exonerate Paterson.
However despite Johnson’s parliamentary majority of 80, and the fact that the amendments might theoretically at least, have got through easily, this rather too-blatant attempt to bend parliamentary rules caused uproar in the House. That morning the right-wing Daily Mail ran the headline: “Shameless MPs sink back into sleaze”, pronouncing it a “dark day for democracy”. So Johnson was forced into a hasty U-turn. His parliamentary chief toff, Jacob Rees-Mogg, stood up and announced that they were dropping the plan to prevent Paterson’s suspension and also their idea of setting up a new standards committee. In fact Johnson had to change his tune so fast and quickly that he now publicly betrayed his “dear friend Owen”. Appearing in front of the Commons Liaison Committee, he said he believed Paterson had broken the rules, saying it was “extraordinary” that “some of his colleagues behave in these ways”! At this point, Paterson chose to resign.
Johnson’s trivial pursuits
In the context of the by-election defeat, the media cite a string of scandals which Johnson has been responsible for since his December 2019 election victory, while still crediting him for the so-called “vaccine success”. What is conspicuous by its absence is the real scandal: the fact that through his upper class, right-wing libertarian contempt for the population he was and is responsible for Britain suffering the highest death toll from Covid in the first wave in March to June 2020 and the second wave in October 2020 to March 2021. The official statistics have been massaged downwards by now and only someone who dies within 28 days of a positive test, qualifies as a “Covid death”. Already before the second wave last year, the real death toll had exceeded 150,000. Yet today what is it? In fact we are told that the number is 147,048 as per new definition and 170,000 as per old one (Covid figuring on the death certificate). But even that is probably an under-estimate.
One underlying cause of this high death toll is the chronic deprivation of the population: The Marmot Review 10 Years On, published just before the pandemic began, showed that life expectancy, but particularly health, had been seriously declining over the decade before Covid struck, most strikingly in poor working class communities in the North East of England, but generally throughout the country. Covid has killed more among the working class, of course. And added to this already-existing vulnerability was the collapsing NHS and the appalling standards in Britain’s largely privatised adult social care, where over 20,000 elderly people perished in the first weeks of the pandemic.
And now the workforce is again under pressure to go to work and catch Covid when most of the temporarily-employed or bogus self-employed get no sick pay - and even if eligible, the state only pays £96.35 per week, a starvation rate.
The other issue is of course Brexit. Johnson has played a totally duplicitous hand - not only towards the Northern Irish, a situation which remains unresolved, but towards farmers, fishermen, and export-importers. Above all, it is Brexit which has caused the dire labour shortage in the country, from the staggering 200,000 worker shortage in the NHS and social care, to the 60,000 drivers the haulage industry lacks.
So yes, the string of misdemeanours over parties and cheese and wine in the garden last May, which the media have been so delighted to expose, are indeed trivial beside these issues.
Will Mop-head get his comeuppance?
As for the “great” rebellion in the Commons on Tuesday 13 December, its outcome had been predicted well in advance. The legislation bringing in his “Plan B” mask-wearing in closed spaces - except pubs and restaurants - and certificates of vaccination for events with more than 4,000 attendees (in other words hardly a big deal) passed 369 votes for, 126 against.
Labour leader, the great patriot, “Sir” Keir Starmer who now always appears on TV next to a Union Jack, had pledged that he would support Johnson in the “national interest”. So in fact the rebellion was a safe one, even if Johnson’s authority over his party seemingly took a knock. Ultra-right wing, libertarian MPs who have long been agitating against any Covid restrictions at all, were at the forefront of the rebellion, which included, for instance, Andrea Leadsom, who claimed this was a slippery slope on the way to authoritarianism. Tory MPs stood up to shout about the right to individual freedom - and specifically the right not to present a “pass” to get into a Premier League football match. Too bad that most fixtures are cancelled this month due to a general outbreak of Covid among the players...
However, even if this kick-back was a minor one, Johnson is finally getting some comeuppance - and as journalists all point out, his injuries are self-inflicted.
It is worth noting that the rebels in his ranks represent some of the most reactionary, far-right MPs: most were keen Brexiteers. And of course, Johnson is entirely responsible for their presence on his benches. After sacking and dismissing the more moderate Old Guard before the 2019 election in his bid for power, he stipulated that every new prospective candidate had to declare for Brexit. This might have won him the election, but what it also brought into the Commons was a host of less digestible Conservatism. So his “successful” strategy, which achieved that 80-strong parliamentary majority, is backfiring on him.
All this said, however, there is unlikely to be a leadership election any time soon, even though there are several candidates eager to take over. Top of the list is Rishi Sunak, the current Chancellor - who for some unfathomable reason just happened to be in California (on a business trip?) during this crisis. That might not look so good. But he has come rushing back and will no doubt pacify the bleating hospitality and entertainment industry with more handouts after Johnson put a blight on their festive season. And thus gain a few more points from the bosses for his future campaign.
As for another front-runner, Liz Truss, time will tell whether her extra responsibilities to “fix Brexit” will turn out to be a poison chalice or not.
So where does all of this leave the prime minister? He can survive for another day, that is for sure. And maybe this time he is not peaking too soon, nor peaking too late, with this latest Covid policy... But the social damage after the “let it rip” approach prior to the two lethal waves in 2020 against a backdrop of increasing deprivation, has already been done and cannot be undone. Which is why it is a shame to see his popularity dealt a blow, not because he is a danger to society, but because he might have known something about last year’s Downing Street Christmas parties.
20 December 2021