This week was supposed to mark the start of Boris Johnson’s comeback. The publication of the first results of the inquiry into the confinement parties in Downing Street was intended to draw a political line. A white paper would flesh out the flagship policy to level out the poorest regions. Instead, the findings proved an indictment of the Prime Minister’s leadership, and the high-profile policy document was overshadowed by a worsening cost-of-living crisis and chaotic departures from Number 10. lost control of events and of its own agenda.
Even as Johnson fights for his political life against “partygate,” it is now clear that the biggest political crisis facing his government is the skyrocketing cost of living. A £9billion support package from Chancellor Rishi Sunak will only cover for even the poorest families half of April’s £700-a-year rise in the energy price cap. The timing is particularly delicate, coinciding with the government’s planned increase in national insurance contributions and the freezing of income tax thresholds.
What’s more, the news about the price cap and the government’s attempt to ease it has coincided with a second straight Bank of England rate hike that will drive up mortgage costs – and a warning that inflation will top 7 % in spring. A call from Bank Governor Andrew Bailey asking Britons to refrain from asking for big pay rises will have struck many voters as deaf, even if it was aimed at solving a real economic problem. He is distinctly uncomfortable with promises made at a triumphalist Conservative Party conference just four months ago of a “high-wage, high-productivity” economy.
The UK government is not alone in facing such challenges. Inflation is rising across much of the developed world due to soaring energy prices and post-pandemic disruptions to labor markets and supply chains. These would be difficult to manage even for the most competent prime minister.
The particular problem for the Johnson Conservatives is that they seem to lack a coherent strategy to achieve their goals and get the economy back on track. Johnson’s high-spending instincts have long clashed with Sunak’s attachment to more traditional fiscal conservatism. The upgrade document is a good example. While it contains some useful ideas, it will require long-term stability and far greater financial firepower than has been committed thus far. This government may struggle to provide either.
Increasingly, Johnson’s personal political woes are making conservatives inward-looking and dysfunctional when they should be focused on looming challenges and how to deal with them. Each policy initiative is viewed through the lens of a potential leadership challenge and how it could benefit the responsible minister.
The political us that helped Johnson survive previous scratches seems, meanwhile, to be abandoning him. A false and ill-judged allegation against the opposition leader prompted Munira Mirza, the prime minister’s loyal lieutenant for 14 years, to resign. Three supposedly planned departures of senior officials were then put forward to show Johnson was restarting his Downing Street operation – but only added to the sense of disarray.
Dithering on whether to try to replace Johnson leaves Tory MPs in the worst of worlds. Waiting until after the local elections in May to decide risks four months of paralysis, while inflation takes hold further. Yet unless this conservative administration manages to rein in prices, which are rising faster than wages, it risks being remembered not for leveling the poorest regions, but for leveling the country as a whole. It could spell the death knell for any government.