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Johnson’s Exit May Get Messy For Conservative Party – Analysis

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By Andrew Hammond*

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Boris Johnson may have resigned as Conservative leader on Wednesday, but the UK ruling party’s troubles are far from over.

While Conservative MPs are largely of the view that now is the right time for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to go, they and the wider party are very divided as to who his successor should be. There is likely to be a big philosophical debate within the party in the coming weeks. This includes whether it needs to move back toward a more Thatcherite-style low tax, small state approach after the big-spending, interventionist alternative of Johnson, which was intensified by the health and economic emergency situation during the pandemic.

The field of candidates seeking the party leadership, and thus the prime ministership, will be large. Already-announced candidates include Attorney General Suella Braverman and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat, but many more will join these ranks, likely including Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi, who Johnson made chancellor only on Tuesday, Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt, Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab.

Nominations will soon open, with MPs expected to whittle the candidates down before the House of Commons summer recess starts later this month. Until a clear favorite to replace Johnson emerges, the policy implications of the upcoming leadership change are unclear.

Other potential contenders include former Health Secretary Sajid Javid and ex-Chancellor Rishi Sunak, whose resignations on Tuesday precipitated Johnson’s downfall. Both Sunak and Javid could find it easier to make the case that they would be “change” candidates, restoring standards in public life post-Johnson, than those who have stuck with the prime minister right to the end.

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The key task for Johnson’s replacement will be ending the paralysis in government with a clear post-Brexit vision for the country as it emerges (hopefully) from the pandemic. This point was highlighted in an important EY report released last month, which looked at investor sentiment across Europe and found that the UK remained a top foreign investment destination, but confidence was fragile.

While Johnson had hoped to be in power for more than a decade after his big election victory in 2019, he will in fact serve only a short term of about three years. This is similar to his predecessor Theresa May and just a little longer than Neville Chamberlain, the much-criticized leader who served from 1937 to 1940, immediately before Winston Churchill’s first term.

Johnson’s decision to stand down came after this week’s deluge of more than 50 resignations from government or Conservative Party posts. He sought to stop the hemorrhaging of his political power on Tuesday with a mini Cabinet reshuffle, but this failed badly.

A snap poll by YouGov on Tuesday evening found that 69 percent of the UK population thought that Johnson should resign. This was 11 percentage points higher than when the pollsters asked the same question only last month. The proportion who said he should go included a majority (54 percent) of 2019 Conservative voters.

It was only last month that Johnson prevailed — in a narrow, technical sense — in an internal no-confidence vote among the Conservative Party’s MPs, getting 211 votes, just over the 180 threshold needed to win. However, he lost in a wider, more important political sense, in that he did not win by enough to end the questions over his leadership that have long dogged him.

What is increasingly clear is that, while Johnson may be one of the best campaigners in UK politics, with an ability to cut through to the electorate with simple slogans such as “Get Brexit Done,” his ability to govern is much weaker. And his period in office reflects this, including the lax managerial discipline that enabled recent scandals to happen.

The reason for this dichotomy is his skill set. For much of the last two years of coronavirus crisis, his approach to tackling the issue has been chaotic and incoherent, reflecting the fact that his style is more “big picture” and not details-focused, while his flamboyance was less suited to the demands of the pandemic era than previous times.

Nevertheless, his supporters will argue that he achieved two big wins. Firstly, his landmark general election victory in 2019, for which the Conservatives redrew, at least temporarily, the UK political map by winning a number of long-standing Labour strongholds, especially in the Midlands and North of England. Secondly, he helped win the divisive Brexit referendum in 2016 and then got the UK out of the EU in 2020.

This is why Johnson’s political legacy is likely to be disputed for years. While he achieved historic accomplishments, including Brexit, the nation will be left more divided than united by his controversial premiership.

• Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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