The consensus in Westminster this morning seems to be that the delayed or heavily redacted Sue Gray report has bought Boris Johnson time to continue to build his campaign to remain as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. However, when one considers the Conservative’s position in the polls, the extent to which Mr Johnson’s own approval ratings have dipped, and the often ruthless internal nature of the Conservative Party, it is possible that this respite may be brief; it remains a matter of when, not if, he is to be replaced as Conservative Party leader.
Johnson – often labelled politics’ Houdini –was more buoyant at this week’s PMQs and will hope that a consistent message about the delivery of Brexit, the vaccine programme and the claim he has been vindicated over the decision to avoid a second Christmas lockdown he has built enough credit in the bank dilute the discontent among his own MPs as the economy continues to open up.
Another source of optimism for Johnson is that Tory tradition holds that he or she who wields the knife rarely wears the crown – deterring many potential suitors from coming forward at this early stage. There is also, it seems, a lack of definite candidates at this moment in time. Prospective front-runners such as Liz Truss or Rishi Sunak will doubtless be wary of damage still to come at May’s local elections or when “Partygate” is finally resolved through either Sue Gray’s report or action from the Met and may prefer to bide their time.
Regardless of whether there is a change in the party leader, however, there will need to be a change in the leadership style of the Conservative Party. Their current position in the eyes of the public and the polls means that there is the potential for electoral humiliation at the next election unless something changes fast.
When considering the options available to the PM or a prospective leader, the fragmented nature of the Conservatives’ current electoral coalition (the Shires and red wall are the unlikely allies that shepherded Johnson back into Downing Street in 2019) mean any change in policy is fraught with difficulty.
The levelling up agenda that played such a key role in breaking through the red wall remains the flagship policy but it faces accusations of being simply superficial rhetoric. The Levelling Up White Paper (the only document seemingly more delayed than Sue Gray’s report) is set to land shortly – and the importance of its success for the Conservative Party cannot be overstated. Many in the north will be hoping to see details of increased funding to drive tangible change in disillusioned regions; this is a task made all the more challenging by the Chancellor’s repeated insistence that there is no new money available and the newly formed Department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) will have to make do with current resources, which are currently focussed on towns.
Funding for the transition to net zero has also come under criticism from the right of the party but any change in position here is an unlikely course of action. Just days ago COP26 President Alok Sharma (quite rightly) claimed that it was crucial for governments to ensure the agreements of Glasgow’s landmark conference amounted to action, not just words. Moreover, such a policy would likely prove unpopular in the Shires and the softer edges of the Conservative Party – an area already under threat as a last year’s humbling in Chesham and Amersham proved.
What is clear then, is that the Conservative Party, its current leader, and any prospective replacement for the current incumbent, are stuck between a rock and a hard place. This may prove to be a consequence of a fragmented electoral coalition.
It is hard to predict how the Conservative Party will attempt to escape from this perilous position, but when the only real certainty is uncertainty (do forgive the cliché) it is crucial that businesses are receiving the best advice to help navigate these choppy waters as the economy recovers.