Alistair Jones, Associate Professor in Politics at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK, has shared his views about what implications this could have for the Tories and Johnson’s own image as the leader of the country.
Sputnik: Boris Johnson is lining up a group of younger and northern Conservative MPs to join his Cabinet next year in a reshuffle that will complete the reset of his Government and in effect sideline potentially rebellious backbenchers. What signals does this send to us about the present situation within the Conservative Party?
Jones: I think the problem for the Conservative Party is there are two major issues – first of all, there’s the way the COVID pandemic has been dealt with, and it’s been dealt with very badly by the UK Government. And if you look at the strategies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – the devolved assemblies – have done their own things, the devolved governments have. They appear to have had much better outcomes than England. So that is one issue. Secondly, we also have Brexit. Now, the UK has formally left the EU, but the transition period ends on 31 December. And then there’s the whole argument over whether or not we get a deal with the EU and if that deal actually goes through and is approved by Parliament. So Boris Johnson has got these competing pressures, and they’re both going to come to a head at about the same time. So, there are plans in England for there to be a loosening of lockdown over the Christmas period, potentially. And if that leads to a big COVID spike afterwards, he’s going to take the blame. So he is going to need to keep the supporters close to him. Because the biggest speculation is actually whether or not he will stay in government. There has been a bit of speculation going on that Boris Johnson is still suffering the after-effects of his COVID, when he was ill with the virus. So there is speculation that he may be moved out early in the New Year and that there may be a total reset of the entire government and a leadership election in the Conservative Party immediately after the end of the transition period. So, there’s a lot of speculation going on.
Sputnik: According to the Financial Times, Boris Jonson is having some issues with Michael Gove, as Gove is consolidating more power as a Cabinet Office minister. What possible reasons could there be behind these tensions?
Jones: In the previous leadership election which Boris Johnson won, Michael Gove came third. Now, the two of them have a history – when Theresa May became party leader, Michael Gove undermined Boris Johnson and Boris Johnson undermined Michael Gove. The two of them do not get on. Now, Michael Gove is a committed Brexiteer. He is a committed Conservative and he’s got a clear vision of where he wants things to go. Boris Johnson is much more strategic in his outlook rather than the detail – he thinks of the big picture – so, get Brexit done, but hasn’t worried about the detail. And Michael Gove has been carrying on actually getting things done to help with the Brexit and a whole host of other aspects. And the feeling is that possibly Gove is undermining Johnson. But the problem is, it’s because Johnson is actually not a very good leader. He is that friendly uncle who’ll put an arm around your shoulder, make you feel good about yourself. So in good times, Boris Johnson is probably the best leader to have. But in times of COVID and in times of complex Brexit negotiations, Boris Johnson is probably not the most appropriate person to be in office leading the country. Michael Gove is aware of that, and he is a much better “details man” in that respect. So he is actually trying to get the work done along with other cabinet members who are worried that Boris Johnson is potentially losing the plot.
Sputnik: Boris Johnson is also aiming to replace key Conservative MPs with MPs representing non-traditional Conservative seats in the North and Midlands. How will this influence the party’s image and the overall internal politics of the UK?
Jones: This is the tricky one. We’ve just had a big problem with regard to Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, who was found guilty of bullying, and she’s been found guilty of bullying in all three cabinet posts that she has held – going back to the Theresa May government as well. So Boris Johnson had to make the final decision on whether she stays or whether she goes and he says she stays. Now, there is speculation that he will reshuffle her away from the home secretary post to become party chairman. And she is very popular with the grassroots. And that engages the grassroots with the party – [that] will probably help. Now, the problem then becomes – who does he actually bring in – because the new Northern MPs – very few of them have any government experience. You’ve got the likes of Dehenna Davison, who is the MP for Bishop Auckland. Bishop Auckland had been Labour forever and suddenly she is the MP for Bishop Auckland, with a comfortable majority of over 8,000. But the issue is, is she going to want to be in government, or does she want to carry on working in her constituency to make sure she gets re-elected in four years’ time? Because if you become a government MP, it becomes almost impossible to represent your constituency’s interests in parliament, and the lack of visibility may actually undermine it. So some of these Northern MPs are really worried that the whole treatment of COVID by the Johnson government has actually undermined their position in the North. And they may be very reluctant to join his government because it may mean that they can’t campaign on behalf of their constituents to lobby the government to change its policy.
Now, there are a number of cabinet members who have not been performing very well. [Robert] Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, is likely to go and maybe his deputy Suella Braverman, the attorney general – both of whom are supposed to be lawyers and therefore supposed to be impartial in many respects, and both have said it’s ok for the UK government to break international law. Now, Suella Braverman has just announced that she is pregnant. So this may be an opportunity for her to be stepping down in the interim – the baby is due sometime in the new year. But Buckland may also go with her at the same time. Then you’ve got the likes of Gavin Williamson, the education secretary who presided over the fiasco of A-level results in England. So he is likely to be on his way out. And quite possibly also Robert Jenrick, the local government minister, because there have been allegations of corrupt practices against him and his junior minister.
Now, the question then becomes – who to promote? And the problem is, as you look at that cohort of people that are in the lower government positions – the likes of Kemi Badenoch – likely to be promoted – but thereafter, the actual capabilities are thin on the ground. So the problem that Boris Johnson has got is that he’s compiled his entire cabinet with Brexiteers – like-minded people to him who are loyal to him and are committed absolutely to Brexit. And the problem is – things outside of Brexit, they are not necessarily the most appropriate people to be in the post. And the new people being elected from the North and the Midlands in the Conservative Party are committed Brexiteers – first and foremost. So there’s a degree of loyalty to Boris Johnson, but there’s also a fear that they will lose their seats and they’re going to be in office only until the next general election. And if they go into the Government and things go worse, they will get blamed – and then they will lose their seats. So Boris Johnson is actually in a really difficult balancing act if he stays on as prime minister and party leader – in trying to get some new blood into his government that is actually capable of doing the job, but also who want to be there. And some of the new MPs may be very reluctant to do anything beyond being involved in parliamentary committees.
Sputnik: Boris Johnson has been accused of authoritarianism in his push to introduce the tier system. How could this reshuffle change the image of the prime minister within the party and among a wider range of politicians?
Jones: The problem Boris Johnson has got is – on the one hand, he appears authoritarian, that he makes the decisions, that he has supported all those government ministers who possibly should have resigned – he supported Priti Patel, he supported Gavin Williamson, he supported Robert Jenrick. So he rewards loyalty. Now, the problem is – those who are pushed to the side – so the likes of Jeremy Hunt, for example, who was the person who came second in the leadership election, he has been totally isolated. He has been removed from anything to do with the government. He is merely a government MP. And he and a number of others who were lukewarm about Brexit or maybe were not keen on Boris Johnson, they see the cohort around Boris Johnson as being out of touch – with the grassroots of the party, potentially, and definitely with society as a whole. But from Boris Johnson’s perspective, he’s got four years to the next general election. So at the moment, he wants to be strong, he wants to be assertive, and he wants to be seen as such. The problem is he’s not been authoritarian, except over Brexit. So treatment of COVID, he has flipped and flopped and we have had a lockdown of sorts in the UK. Only it’s not been a lockdown; it’s been a vice. And there’s an issue arising now that there’s the appearance of being a strong leader, an authoritarian leader. But the reality is that he’s got feet of clay – and that it’s actually not there and it could all come tumbling down very, very easily.
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