A monstrous in-tray awaits Boris Johnson’s eventual successor – article for the Economist – 07.07.22
Dealing with it may be beyond an exhausted Conservative Party
Boris Johnson’s premiership started collapsing to the sound of “Zadok the Priest”. On July 5th, beneath the windows of Downing Street, the bands of the Household Division were conducting the Beating Retreat, an annual parade marking the closure of camp gates at nightfall. One hour before, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor of the exchequer, and Sajid Javid, the health secretary, had resigned. In the offices of Whitehall, all hell was breaking loose. On the square below, immaculate precision.
Over the next 36 hours, some 50 members of the government would resign; countless more mps would urge Mr Johnson to go. On the evening of July 6th, a delegation of cabinet ministers—among them Mr Sunak’s replacement, Nadhim Zahawi—told him the game was up. His response was a fit of Shakespearean defiance. He sacked Michael Gove, the closest thing the cabinet had to a greybeard, and insisted upon his personal electoral mandate of 14m voters (a bastardisation of the constitution: Britons elect parliaments, not presidents). He hinted at asking the queen for an election to save himself from his colleagues; that would have tested constitutional conventions to the limit. Boris Johnson did what he always does: he looked out for Boris Johnson.
By the next morning, he did not even have a Potemkin government left to run. He told his colleagues he would go, but asked to be allowed to stay on to oversee a transition. Fat chance, thought many; the most careless of prime ministers could not be a caretaker. “Evict TODAY or he’ll cause CARNAGE,” tweeted Dominic Cummings, a vengeful former aide. Mr Johnson had promised to end the instability that blighted Theresa May’s short premiership. He has more than matched it.
At the front of the queue to succeed Mr Johnson is Mr Zahawi. A child refugee from Iraq, who supported Brexit and oversaw a successful vaccine programme, he is a popular figure in the party. But the field will be large. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, is keen; so is Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the foreign-affairs committee, and Suella Braverman, the attorney-general. Mr Sunak and Mr Javid are expected to have a tilt.
Whoever succeeds Mr Johnson will inherit a monstrous in-tray. The Bank of England forecasts inflation to reach 11% in the autumn; the pound is fragile. The nhs is grappling with an immense backlog of 4.3m patients waiting for elective procedures. The long-term growth outlook is poor. He or she will also confront a deeper question: is the Conservative Party still capable of governing?
Support for the Tories has fallen across all types of voters who backed them in 2019, according to our analysis of polling conducted by YouGov in June. The next election will see them fight on all fronts, as new northern seats and southern heartlands face a pincer movement from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. After 12 years in power, four general elections and the imminent loss of a third prime minister, the exhaustion may be too great and the rifts too deep for the party to recover.
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This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "The wreckage he leaves behind"