It has been a difficult second lockdown for Boris Johnson. Currently self-isolating in Downing Street, he has been struggling with two huge challenges. On the one hand his negligent policies have meant there is little prospect of an end to the covid19 pandemic any time soon, despite the promise of a vaccine. The Tories have been forced into another lockdown and an extension of the furlough scheme and are finding it increasingly difficult to balance their interest in opening up the economy with the need to contain the public health crisis. On the other hand, the Brexit deadline on 31 December is approaching fast with little sign of a resolution. Johnson faced a new headache last month with the departure of Dominic Cummings, whose forced resignation followed that of Lee Cain, Johnson’s communications director and another key member of the Vote Leave campaign. On top of this, the prime minister has been criticized for defending Priti Patel after a report found that she had bullied colleagues in the Home Office. Johnson pressed fellow cabinet members to support Patel, despite her implausible explanation that she did not realise she was harming people. Much of the media has focused on gossip about the various rival factions at Downing Street, especially the role of Johnson’s partner Carrie Symonds in ousting Cummings. After his breaking of lockdown rules for family trip to Barnard Castle earlier in the year, Johnson’s unelected advisor won’t be missed by readers of this magazine. But his resignation is a sign of much deeper disunion within the Tories.
It now looks increasingly plausible that Britain will exit the EU without a trade deal. This would leave Britain with a relationship with the EU similar to the one Australia currently has, which would mean tariffs on British goods such as cars and agricultural products, making it harder for British companies to export to the EU. The Australian government itself is unhappy with its own status and is currently trying to negotiate a trade deal with the EU. Cummings and his associates favoured an emphasis on “sovereignty” rather than free trade. As they see it, such a no-deal Brexit would be a price worth paying to avoid the EU rules against state aid. Cummings wanted the government to use greater state intervention in the high-tech sector to try to find their way out of the economic crisis. He seems to believe that Britain could become a great power on the back of outlandish science and technology projects.
This includes Operation Moonshot, a plan to test millions of people per week for covid-19 using a rapid lateral flow test. This would cost £100 billion and experts warn that it could make the situation worst by giving false negative results that give people the false impression that they can go out and mix with others. Consultant Angela Raffle has described it as “the most unethical proposal for use of public funds or for screening that I’d ever seen”. Operation Moonshot appears to still be going ahead, with initial trials in Liverpool, even without Cummings in charge. The sovereignty approach puts Johnson at odds with the Thatcherite wing of the Conservative Party who tend to oppose state aid and support unrestricted trade, including Rishi Sunak, who is lobbying against a no-deal Brexit. A year ago, Johnson enjoyed favourable poll ratings as well as his 80 seat majority.
Now, with his poll ratings rapidly dropping, he looks much weaker. The so-called “red wall”, where former Labour voters in the North of England switched to the Conservatives in the last election, has been hit particularly hard by the effects of the second wave as well as the new lockdown measures and jobs crisis. In this context, Sunak looks like a serious threat. A poll of Conservative Party members in October found Sunak to be the most popular cabinet member, awarding him a satisfaction rating of 81.5 and Johnson a score of -10.
The election of Joe Biden also causes problems for Johnson. Biden has expressed his discontent with Johnson’s willingness to breach aspects of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that he signed earlier in the year. He is particularly concerned by the prospect that a no deal Brexit could lead to a hard border between the north and south of Ireland. Some speculate that the timing of Cummings’ departure has more to do with the US election than the internal faction fighting in Downing Street. It is unclear what Johnson will do now that Cummings is gone. Some say that it will allow him to make a deal with the EU, but this will not solve all his problems. A divided and unpopular Tory Party should be an opportunity for Labour and the trade unions to go on the offensive. However, Keir Starmer is more interested in attacking the left than offering any kind of serious opposition.