Can the new Tory leader escape Johnson’s toxic legacy?

A vital quality at the heart of many dramas – fictional, sporting or political – is jeopardy. The audience takes sides, between characters, teams or parties, and is kept in suspense for as long as possible as to the outcome. If we have a stake in the result, as fan or voter, the drama is intense. But If we know in advance who dunnit or which side will win, the drama excites us less.

On that basis we are in for a thrilling few weeks, and possibly months. This is in part because of the uncertainty of the immediate future – not least whether Boris Johnson will stay on as a caretaker Prime Minister until September, or whether he will depart earlier.

However, the greater drama, and the greater jeopardy, concerns the future of the Conservative Party itself. It should be optimistic. It lags Labour by around 7 percentage points. That is not bad for a government in mid-term – and, in truth, pretty good for a governing party whose departing leader is so despised by so many voters. Add in the plight of families battered by higher taxes, rising prices and impending recession, and Labour should be at least 20 points ahead. It has nowhere near that kind of dominance. A new Tory leader who can establish a reputation for competence and integrity should be able to overtake a Labour Party that is still some way from repairing its relationship with an electorate that rejected it so decisively at the last general election.

All in all, I wouldn’t bet against another Conservative victory at the next election. But I wouldn’t bet much on it, either. The future of the party is still in jeopardy, and for two reasons.

The first is that we cannot be sure that the dislike of the Conservative party will evaporate. As I reported last week, Johnson has not only trashed his own reputation, he has dragged the Conservative brand down with him. According to YouGov, only 16 per cent of voters say the party is competent,10 per cent say it is trustworthy and nine per cent in touch with voters’ views.

A new leader is likely to secure an increase in all these terrible numbers – but will they increase enough? At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Keir Starmer rightly broadened his attack to include the Tory MPs who sustained Johnson in power for so long. After all, Johnson’s failings have been well-known for many years. The Chris Pincher saga might have been the final straw, but Tory MPs would have had to be lifelong hermits to be unaware of Johnson’s perpetual struggles to tell the truth and uphold the rules and norms of civilised behaviour.

In short, one of the big questions as we approach the next general election is whether or not the Tories can dispel the stench of the Johnson years, and demonstrate that they have mended their ways. In 1990, John Major managed to do just that when he succeeded Margaret Thatcher. He went on to lead the Tories to a surprise Tory victory in 1992, when the party secured more than 14 million votes – a record that still stands for the largest vote any party has ever secured. Can the Tories’ next leader repeat Major’s achievement?

Johnson is also responsible for the second jeopardy facing the Conservative Party. It concerns their purpose. Despite having few ideological convictions of his own, Johnson won the party leadership, and then the 2019 election, promising to get Brexit done. Those victories, however, came at a cost. The party shed a large part of the one-nation, pro-European tradition that has been a crucial element of its identity for many decades.

From Thatcher’s relations with the European Union in the 1980s, via Major’s handling of the Maastricht Treaty in the early 1990s to David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum in 2016, successive party leaders have failed to end fractious internal battles over Europe. Johnson succeeded where they failed, in effect by driving out the pro-Europeans. The trouble is that the party he bequeaths his successor looks lopsided and economically incoherent. It has lost not just its centrists, but the ballast of good sense and practical experience that every party needs in order to counter the ideological obsessions of its activists. We hear much about hedge fund managers and relatives of Russian oligarchs that fund the party, but rather less about the real wealth-creators and major investors in new industries.

Earlier this week the London head of one of the world’s biggest banking groups told me that his group now steers its clients away from the UK, because of deep uncertainties over future economic strategy, taxation, regulations, relations with the EU and the value of sterling. It was not just the policy, but the tone, close to despair, with which it was expressed.

For decades, the Tories’ greatest electoral asset was their reputation for competence. This was rooted in a belief that the party understood business and how to make Britain more prosperous. By delivering Brexit and driving out the pro-Europeans, Johnson has damaged both the country and his party.

In short, the new Conservative leader, whoever s/he is, and whenever s/he takes over, will confront a double challenge: erasing the toxic legacy of Johnson the cad and Johnson the accidental ideologue.

This blog was first published by Prospect