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The lies that bind the Conservatives

Sonia Sodha

Opinion polls suggest that a clear majority of the public think Boris Johnson should resign. And while Sue Gray’s interim report contained no detail of what happened with regard to the numerous Downing Street parties, in order to avoid prejudicing the ongoing Met police investigation, she was damning about a Downing Street culture that saw the Prime Minister attend boozy gatherings.

Yet still, as we go to print, Johnson clings on. It is extraordinary: a prime minister who clearly broke the spirit if not the letter of laws and regulations he introduced during a national emergency, and who is the subject of criminal investigation by the police, remains in power. But the only people who can remove him from post before an election are Conservative MPs: 54 of them need to write letters to the backbench 1922 committee to trigger a vote of no confidence in him as leader.

This makes collective action harder: the Conservative party is currently suffering from a tragedy of the Commons, where unhappy MPs, who fear their letters being leaked, wait to see if enough colleagues will join them. Meantime, the disjointed way events unfolded has defused the momentum of those MPs agitating to remove Johnson immediately. He might last weeks, months or even more.

But how long he remains in Downing Street is now almost immaterial to the electoral bind the Conservatives find themselves in. Whichever way you look at it, they are in serious trouble. Johnson himself is so damaged that the longer he stays in post, the more he toxifies the Conservative brand.

Yet none of his likely successors will appeal much to the former Labour voters Johnson persuaded to vote Tory for the first time in 2019. The Conservative party finds itself in a similar situation to Labour in 2015: selecting its next leader is ultimately in the hands of its party members, yet collectively they are far to the right of Johnson on economics, ill-suited to choose someone who can maximise their party’s electoral appeal. The front runners to succeed Johnson – like Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – take a far more Thatcherite approach to the national finances.

At the time of the next election, the Conservatives will have been in power for fourteen-odd years. Voters will be thirsty for change

This is symbolic of the ideological ditch the party finds itself in. “Get Brexit done” was a hugely effective slogan that Johnson used as a crutch to bind together a new electoral coalition, bringing together the Tory heartlands and red wall seats. But now Brexit is done as far as the public is concerned; without it there is no governing sense of purpose that unites the government with those who voted for it in 2019.

Unless there are further vaccine-beating variants, the next election is not going to be about the pandemic, but about people’s finances: the rising cost of living that will see some families thousands of pounds a year worse off by the time of the next election. It’s the result of tax credit cuts for low-paid parents, rising energy bills and inflation, and stagnant or falling real wages. This will be compounded by the damage of Brexit: voters will blame the government for the consequences of poor economic growth for their budgets.

Johnson’s rhetoric-driven, “levelling up” agenda – which involves little more than re-announcing old pots of money – has no chance of counteracting these grim trends. And at the time of the next election, the Conservatives will have been in power for fourteen-odd years. Voters will be thirsty for change. That is why Conservative MPs have been so slow to act: they know they’re likely damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.

Cressida Dick

From the investigated to the investigators. The Met police have embroiled themselves in yet more controversy by putting off their investigation into the Downing Street parties for as long as they could. By doing so, and delaying the publication of the Gray findings, they have certainly – whether intentionally or not – offered Johnson a stay of proceedings and materially affected the course of democratic politics, despite their impartial status.

It heaps more pressure on Met commissioner, Cressida Dick. Dick has been the subject of critical press ever since she gave the command for police officers to shoot the innocent Jean Charles de Menezes in 2005, who died on the scene, after he was mistaken for a suicide bomber.

As commissioner, she has come under fire for claiming her police force is no longer afflicted by institutional racism, for failures that meant a serving police officer was able to rape and murder Sarah Everard, for the dreadfully overbearing policing of the vigil in her memory, and for her criticism of “armchair critics” of the police.

The police force she leads still suffers from ingrained misogyny, racism and homophobia, as highlighted by this month’s police watchdog report on Charing Cross police station.

Dick is apparently popular among rank and file police; they see her as a straight-up officer uncorrupted by politics. But what the Downing Street investigation shows is there is no such thing as an apolitical commissioner: her decision not to act for weeks in this case has had consequences just as significant as if she’d taken action straight away.

As the country’s most senior police officer her job is to maintain the confidence of the public as well as her officers – crucially, public support for the old principle of policing by consent. Dick is bad at the latter, and it’s why she shouldn’t be in charge of the Met.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4

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