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Monday, February 6, 2023

Crunch time for Boris Johnson: ‘He is really lucky to be in a job’

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Boris Johnson is going through a battle for political survival this month, however he won’t be getting a hand from Paul Blackwell.

“I’m not voting Tory again while he’s in charge,” says the gross sales supervisor, out buying within the southwestern city of Tiverton in Devon, the place the prime minister faces a deadly parliamentary by-election later this month. “He’s a blithering clown. I usually vote for the Tories but I’ve lost faith.”

Around the nook at Tiverton’s bus station, a hub on this rural Conservative bastion, Terry, a retiree, is equally unimpressed. “He’s lied to people and he’s still doing the same now,” he says of the prime minister. “Old fashioned values have gone out of the window. There’s a lack of integrity from people at the top.”

Will he be voting Tory on June 23? He appears to be like out over the inexperienced hills fringing the city centre: “Never again — not after all this.”

Johnson’s repute has been battered by a scandal over events in Downing Street through the Covid lockdowns. He now faces an financial tsunami of hovering inflation and the worst cost-of-living squeeze in a era. The final thing he wants is a parliamentary by-election in Tiverton and Honiton — what must be a secure seat for the Conservatives.

Just two-and-a-half years in the past, Johnson led his get together to an awesome victory in a basic election, profitable a parliamentary majority of 80 seats. Last yr he was praised for the federal government’s easy and speedy rollout of Covid vaccines.

Andrew Pryce, director of James Pryce Tractors in Tiverton, has change into a minor media superstar, providing knowledgeable recommendation on whether or not it’s attainable to confuse farm equipment with porn © Charlie Bibby/FT

But after a continuing drip of revelations in current months in regards to the behaviour of Johnson and his workers whereas the remainder of the nation was subjected to a brutal lockdown, his staff can be relieved if they’ll get via June with the prime minister nonetheless safely in his publish.

The Devon by-election, triggered by the resignation of native MP Neil Parish, who says he watched on-line pornography within the House of Commons whereas making an attempt to analysis tractors, has a minimum of generated some darkish humour. Andrew Pryce, director of James Pryce Tractors in Tiverton, has change into a minor media superstar, providing knowledgeable recommendation on whether or not it’s attainable to confuse farm equipment with porn.

But Pryce doesn’t see the humorous aspect of what has been taking place in Downing Street. “I’m appalled they have been able to get away with it, I really am,” he says. “I think Boris Johnson is really lucky to be in a job still.”

Growing strain to stop

Although the boundaries have modified at occasions, the Tiverton constituency has been Tory for the reason that Nineteen Twenties. The Conservatives’ majority there in 2019 was a whopping 24,239.

It is an indication of Johnson’s issues that the bookmakers have put in the Liberal Democrats as odds-on favourites to win the seat — a cluster of small cities and villages with the textiles city of Tiverton at its core. Conservatives imagine they’ll cling on in Tiverton and it’s nonetheless simple to search out native voters who imagine the prime minister is doing a very good job in making an attempt circumstances. Lib Dem strategists say a victory is “possible” however insist it’s nonetheless an extended shot.

But the Conservative marketing campaign just isn’t helped by the truth that virtually 30 Tory MPs have referred to as for Johnson to stop, with criticism mounting each day. The prime minister, whose management was questioned final month by the senior civil servant Sue Gray in her report into “partygate”, thought he had discovered a brief break this weekend because the nation turned its consideration to the royal jubilee celebrations. However he was booed when he arrived at St Paul’s cathedral on Friday for a thanksgiving service.

Some insurgent Conservative MPs imagine Johnson might face a no-confidence vote as early as the approaching week: a complete of 54 Tory MPs are required to write down to Sir Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 committee, to set off such a vote. Johnson’s allies say claims the rebels are approaching the magic quantity are misguided: “We’re not in the danger zone yet,” mentioned one. They insist the scenario is being whipped up by a handful of malcontents.

Still, it’s clear that poison is working via the get together’s bloodstream. “Boris Johnson erodes the institutions he’s part of,” says one usually mild-mannered Tory MP who has submitted a letter. “Anyone who gives him the benefit of the doubt gets burnt. He will destroy us and he doesn’t care.” The rebels imagine that even when the prime minister survives the week, a defeat on June 23 in Tiverton and Honiton — and one other contest within the northern Tory seat of Wakefield on the identical day — would make a no-confidence vote inevitable.

Daisy Cooper, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats, out canvassing for the upcoming by-election in Tiverton
Daisy Cooper, deputy chief of the Liberal Democrats, out canvassing for the upcoming by-election in Tiverton © Charlie Bibby/FT

The strain is due to this fact on Helen Hurford, a former main college headteacher and the Tory candidate in Tiverton to assist save Johnson. But her views on the prime minister are exhausting to discern, since she is being shielded from the nationwide media amid fears she can be requested about partygate. Requests from the Financial Times to satisfy her on the marketing campaign path went unanswered.

One man in Tiverton’s Fore Street, learning the posters for forthcoming movies on the city’s Tivoli cinema, admits sheepishly to being an area Tory councillor, earlier than whispering conspiratorially: “You’re wasting your time, mate. We’ve been told to refer all media inquiries to the press office.” It just isn’t precisely an indication of a celebration brimming with self-confidence. 

‘They aren’t in the actual world’

It is straightforward to see why the Conservatives are nervous. Last yr the Liberal Democrats, a celebration nonetheless recovering from the trauma of a five-year coalition with the Tories beneath David Cameron’s premiership, gained two parliamentary by-elections within the Conservative strongholds of Chesham and Amersham, and North Shropshire.

The demographic make-up in North Shropshire, the place the Tories had been defending a 23,000 majority, appears to be like ominously just like Tiverton and Honiton: primarily rural and strongly pro-Brexit. Lib Dem strategists declare {that a} third of people that voted for the get together in North Shropshire had supported leaving the EU in 2016.

The Lib Dems, who opposed Brexit, declare that the difficulty is seldom raised particularly on the doorstep in Devon. “But people say things like: our lives haven’t improved like they said [they] would,” says one Lib Dem campaigner. “That’s often a tacit reference to Brexit.” 

The two by-elections on June 23

Tiverton and Honiton


What occurred: Neil Parish, the MP since 2010, stood down after admitting watching pornography in parliament

Conservative majority: 24,239

Held by a Conservative since its creation in 1997 and in earlier incarnations for the reason that Nineteen Twenties


West Yorkshire

What occurred: Imran Ahmad Khan resigned following his conviction for sexual assault

Conservative majority: 3,358

Formerly a Labour marginal gained by the Tories in 2019 election

In Tiverton’s pannier market, there’s real unhappiness that Parish, a farmer who was seen as an lively advocate for his constituency, has resigned. But now he has gone, some appear decided to punish Johnson. “I think Johnson has burnt a few of his bridges with the public and with his MPs,” says Joanna Bellamy, 53. “When he was having parties and people couldn’t see their loved ones — that shows they aren’t in the real world.”

Conservative MPs say that the partygate scandal — and the related concept that requirements in public life are sinking beneath Johnson’s management — has had higher resonance amongst conventional Tory voters. Julia Govier, an area businesswoman, says she is a Conservative voter however “disillusioned with what’s going on”.

One south-west Tory MP mentioned: “Nice, soft, middle-of-the-road Tory voters are beyond upset with Boris and they won’t be changing their mind.” Three Tory MPs in Devon constituencies neighbouring Tiverton have referred to as for Johnson to stop. The Lib Dems, cheekily, have challenged Hurford to name for his resignation too.

But Johnson nonetheless has his supporters. Tiverton, the place the specialist textile manufacturing facility John Heathcoat made the parachute materials for the Mars touchdown of the Nasa Perseverance Rover final yr, has a working class heritage, giving it one thing in widespread with the so-called pink wall manufacturing areas of northern England that backed Johnson in 2019.

Julia Govier, a local businesswoman and Conservative voter who is ‘disillusioned with what’s going on’, speaks with Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord outside her house in Tiverton
Julia Govier, an area businesswoman and Conservative voter who’s ‘disillusioned with what’s occurring’, speaks with Lib Dem candidate Richard Foord outdoors her home in Tiverton © Charlie Bibby/FT

“I think he has been dealt with a bad couple of cards, his whole tenure has been hit with one thing after another,” says John Gutterridge, 60, talking within the city’s market. “He does come across as a bumbling fool sometimes but, on the other hand, you can relate to him more as a human.”

According to 23-year-old Dale Padmore: “The parties were bang out of order. But Johnson is getting slated so much, when actually I think he is doing a cracking job with all the other stuff.”

For many Tory MPs, it isn’t but clear that Johnson has change into an electoral legal responsibility. Some, significantly within the north, owe their seats to his populist, charismatic type and are reluctant to roll the cube, particularly when it’s removed from clear who would succeed him. The lead to Tiverton and Honiton might assist to make clear whether or not Johnson retains some magic mud or whether or not any different chief could be higher.

Non-aggression pact

The polling alerts are all flashing pink. Tory MPs have spent the jubilee weekend having their ears bent in regards to the authorities’s efficiency at road events throughout their constituencies.

The Labour get together has caught up with the Conservatives, or overtaken them, on many financial measures, in response to YouGov, because the nation’s inflation charge heads in direction of 10 per cent.

Tiverton’s pannier market
Tiverton’s pannier market © Charlie Bibby/FT

Anthony Wells, political director at YouGov, says the competition in Tiverton and Honiton can be between the Tories and Lib Dems; Labour, which completed second right here in 2019 is combating a near-invisible marketing campaign, focusing its efforts on the Yorkshire seat in Wakefield. The two centre-left events have an unofficial non-aggression pact, leaving Johnson going through a battle on two fronts.

Johnson’s approval rankings have nosedived. This time final yr, when he was presiding over Britain’s profitable vaccine rollout, he was briefly in optimistic territory, however a YouGov tracker now places him on minus 42. The similar ballot discovered that nearly eight in 10 voters thought he had lied over the partygate affair, whereas solely 8 per cent thought he informed the reality. Labour’s ballot lead over the Conservatives is averaging over 6 per cent.

Support for the Conservatives amongst farmers (who’re usually solidly Conservative) has additionally been sliding, amid issues that guarantees made to them about the advantages of Brexit haven’t been delivered. 

Meanwhile enterprise confidence has additionally been falling sharply. The Institute of Directors final month discovered optimism amongst enterprise leaders was at its lowest degree since October 2020. Of these feeling pessimistic, the commonest cause given was inflation and issues buying and selling with the EU following Brexit.

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The collapse in help for Johnson, the swirling of Tory “sleaze” tales and a droop within the authorities’s financial competence rankings have drawn comparisons with the Nineteen Nineties, when one other apparently exhausted Conservative authorities staggered to defeat.

Back then John Major was hit by a collection of private scandals involving his MPs, a few of which appear quaintly innocuous now. Johnson, against this, has seen a Tory MP convicted of sexual assault, one other arrested on suspicion of rape and nonetheless others accused of bullying and sexual harassment. And, in fact, he has personally been fined for committing a legal offence: breaking Covid lockdown guidelines.

David Lidington, a minister in Theresa May’s authorities and first elected in 1992, recollects how Major’s authorities had already misplaced its repute for financial competence after Britain was pressured out of the EU’s trade charge mechanism in 1992 earlier than the “back to basics” scandals hit.

“There’s a serious risk for the government that scandals are seen by the public as an illustration of a government that has been in office for too long,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges in 2024 will be to resist the ‘time for a change’ argument. Labour are already using the ‘they’re running out of ideas’ line.”

Labour leader Keir Starmer responds to a statement by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to MPs in the House of Commons on the Sue Gray report.
Labour chief Keir Starmer responds to a press release by Boris Johnson within the House of Commons on the Sue Gray report in January. Starmer believes the mix of private wrongdoing and financial missteps might show deadly for the prime minister © House of Commons/PA

Lidington notes that a minimum of Johnson just isn’t going through a extremely standard, charismatic Labour opponent, as Major was with Tony Blair in 1997. But Sir Keir Starmer, in the present day’s Labour chief, believes the mix of private wrongdoing and financial missteps might show deadly for Johnson.

“People are starting to think that Johnson is not doing as much as he should be to help them through the cost of living crisis,” says one senior Labour official. “They are starting to ask themselves whether that’s because people in Downing Street are out of touch or having a party, when they should be looking out for them.”

Lord Jonathan Hill, a former adviser to Major, says that in some respect Johnson’s predicament is extra precarious. In the Nineteen Nineties “there wasn’t a sense that all of our institutions were collapsing, that Whitehall was collapsing and Number 10 didn’t work”. The economic system, beneath Major, was additionally recovering, not sliding right into a attainable recession.

Robin Milton on his farm in Higher Barton in West Anstey, Devon
Robin Milton, a farmer at Higher Barton on the sting of Exmoor, says agricultural incomes have dropped since Brexit © Charlie Bibby/FT

Tory MPs additionally had a way that Major was persevering with the work of Margaret Thatcher, his predecessor, whereas Hill says now there’s a “feeling that the philosophical moorings have been severed”. Some rightwing Tory MPs say Johnson’s imposition final month of a windfall tax on power corporations was the ultimate straw — Britain’s tax degree is already its highest for 70 years.

Hill says that even within the dying days of the Major administration “there was not this wild lurching around so you did not know what kind of party or policy approach you were going to get”. He provides: “The party did not have an identity crisis.”

Severed ties

Nowhere is that id disaster extra obvious than within the hills rising above Tiverton in direction of Exmoor nationwide park, the place Johnson spent a part of his childhood.

Farmers right here had lengthy assumed the Conservative get together was their political wing: Johnson’s current deal with “levelling up” and on northern cities have left some feeling taken as a right.

Robin Milton, who farms round 200 Aberdeen Angus beef cattle and 500 sheep at Higher Barton on the sting of Exmoor, factors to a current survey suggesting farmers within the south-west had misplaced round £880mn through the transition from the EU subsidy regime to a brand new British help system.

“There was always a promise that farming would be all right,” says Milton. A shortfall in farm incomes was having a knock-on impact for native outlets, farmers’ retailers and agricultural equipment producers.

“There’s a huge amount of fear in the farming community,” he says, surveying the moors the place Johnson grew up. “I’m not quite sure he understands the impact of what’s happening to local people.”

Source: www.ft.com

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