Boris Johnson’s resignation leaves Conservative Party at a crossroads

The Conservative Party faces two key questions as it begins the process of electing a new leader. First, how much distance should it put between itself and Boris Johnson? Second, what policy stances should it take in the post-Brexit, post-Covid world that threatens the biggest crisis in living standards since 1945.

John Curtice 

The controversy surrounding Johnson’s judgment and ethics that has dogged the party over the last six months has not only damaged his personal reputation, but also harmed its electoral standing. On the eve of Johnson’s eventual downfall on Thursday, the party stood at just 33 per cent in the polls, seven points behind Labour.

But will simply replacing Johnson be enough to reverse the damage? Certainly, the new leader will need to have a different style — to be seen to show more regard for due process, a greater sense of collegiality, and a greater readiness to provide a direct answer to tough questions than was characteristic of Johnson.

However, will voters be willing to warm to anyone who was a member of Johnson’s cabinet through thick and thin until earlier this week? And will the spectacle of a near collapse in the government this week have raised questions in voters’ minds about the ability of the party collectively to provide effective government? Certainly, support for the party is down on average by another three points in the first polls to be taken since Johnson’s resignation, leaving Labour as much as 11 points ahead.

One way in which the next leader might hope to reverse the damage done to the party’s reputation in the eyes of voters is to provide it with a renewed sense of direction. In truth, the party has found itself in an uncomfortable place in the wake of a pandemic that has resulted in record levels of spending, taxation and fiscal deficit, a trio now overlaid by a “cost of living crisis”. Many Conservative MPs feel they did not come into politics to preside over a significant growth in the size of the state, and the debate over how best to respond had opened a gulf between Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak.

The reaction among many in the party has been to reach for the familiar ideological lever of tax cuts, arguing that such a step would immediately help put money in voters’ constrained pockets. Yet those advocating this course have yet to spell out the implications of such cuts for both the management of the fiscal deficit and public expenditure.

Is the party ready to abandon the spending on infrastructure that was central to Johnson’s “levelling-up” agenda, from which Leave voting areas in particular are meant to profit? And will tax cuts — rather than trying to repair the damage done by Covid to the NHS and schools — have a sufficient appeal for an electorate that has already shown signs of concern about the impact of a pre-Covid decade of fiscal austerity on the funding of public services?

Equally, there is debate within the party about how Johnson’s principal legacy as prime minister — Brexit — should now be managed. Some Tory MPs appear keen to seize more vigorously what they regard as the opportunity afforded by Brexit to deregulate the economy by divesting the country of many an EU regulation. Yet research suggests that voters, including many Leave voters, value much of the consumer and environmental protection that has been put in place by the EU and are inclined to evaluate regulation on an unideological, case-by-case basis. Meanwhile, although even many Remain voters do not want to see a return to EU freedom of movement, voters do not necessarily want to see immigration cut at the expense of being able to deal with the labour market shortages that have evolved in the wake of Covid.

Hanging on to old verities will not necessarily provide the Conservatives with the direction they need to persuade voters that the party can govern effectively in the midst of the very different and complex challenges that Britain now faces. Rather, the party needs to be willing to think afresh rather than simply resort to its comfort zone.

John Curtice is Professor of Politics, Strathclyde University, and Senior Research Fellow, NatCen Social Research and ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’.