Boris Johnson Boris Johnson. Photo: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

This morning’s electoral earthquake could be the beginning of the end for the Prime Minister, writes Sean Ledwith

Boris Johnson was having a bad week even before today’s astounding news from the North Shropshire by-election. The worst backbench rebellion of his premiership, persistent stories of lockdown-busting parties at Downing Street and the looming threat of Omicron have converged to generate multiplying cracks in Johnson’s supposed image as a political winner.

This morning, Helen Morgan’s sensational victory for the Liberal Democrats in a previously rock-solid Tory seat has dealt another body blow to the PM’s status and could even trigger a leadership challenge from within the Tory Party.

Local fury

Even a narrow win for the Tories in this location would have been perceived as a blow to Johnson; a seismic swing to the Lib Dems on this scale is a shock that can barely be exaggerated. Morgan astoundingly overturned a 23,000 Tory majority from the 2019 election by 6,000 votes. That represents an incredible 34% swing, the seventh biggest in parliamentary history. Even though Morgan is an ardent Remainer, local fury in the Leave-voting constituency at Johnson’s mounting pile of lies, blunders and failures was intense to push Tory candidate Neil-Shastri-Hurst into second place. The seat has been in Tory hands for almost 200 years!

From hero to zero

This new crisis for Johnson is entirely one of his own making. The election was triggered by Johnson’s bungled attempt last month to save the skin of former Tory MP Owen Paterson who had been found guilty of egregious breaches of the parliamentary lobbying code. According to his supporters, the Prime Minister has a sixth sense for the electoral mood of the public which has won him two London mayoral elections, the Brexit referendum, the Tory leadership and the last general election.

If that were ever true, Johnson’s political instincts have definitely abandoned him now. He totally misjudged how public anger at his transparent attempt to rig an investigation into Paterson’s indefensible conduct would backfire. Local Tories in North Shropshire were so desperate to avoid association with him that he made no appearances on the campaign trail there after 3 December. Scores of Tory MPs in the much-hyped Blue Wall seats taken from Labour in 2019 will now be having similar thoughts about how the man who supposedly delivered electoral gold dust then could turn into a total liability next time round.

Lockdown busters

As if the news from North Shropshire was not enough to make Johnson choke on his corn flakes, he will also be reeling from some of the other headlines this morning. There are new reports of further breaches of lockdown rules linked to the PM and his team. The stink from the infamous Downing Street party-that-was-not-a-party last December is still lingering over him from last week and now there are further stories of him attending a pizza party with about twenty people just days after the first lockdown was announced last year.

Incredibly this non-party took place just hours after Health Secretary Matt Hancock had told us at a press conference ‘you can meet one other person from outside your household in an outdoor, public place’. Johnson is reported to have told one attendee they deserved a drink for ‘beating back Covid‘. Alongside this week’s stomach-churning photo of Tory candidate for London mayor Shaun Bailey and his team arm-in-arm as they stuff themselves with champagne and sandwiches this time last year, the wrath of voters in North Shropshire is no surprise.

Omicron omnishambles

The threat to Johnson’s political career, however, is overshadowed by the threat to the public from the accelerating Omicron variant. Every day brings record-breaking numbers of infections with yesterday hitting 90,000. A senior government scientific advisor has suggested it could be up to a million by the end of this month. The Prime Minister’s characteristically shambolic attempt to stem the viral tide has been undermined by the persistent stories of his own cavalier attitude to lockdown regulations.

Swivel-eyed Tory backbenchers who, ostrich-like, insist on dismissing the Omicron threat now have Johnson over a parliamentary barrel thanks to his dim-witted party antics. The need for another lockdown is looking increasingly likely but the Thatcherite fanatics of the Covid Recovery Group could make that impossible. These are the same sociopaths who last year blithely downplayed the Kent variant, thereby facilitated a second wave of the pandemic that was even more deadly than the first. They are also the same people who hyped up last summer’s ridiculous Freedom Day which encouraged millions to unwisely presume the pandemic was over.

Not for the first time during this seemingly endless nightmare, we are all in jeopardy thanks to an ideological dogfight in the Tory Party. The sooner the whole lot are swept away in a national equivalent of North Shropshire the better.

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters

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