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By-election Bruising Sends Boris Back to the Drawing Board

While Wakefield’s return to Labour is a blow for the Tories, Tiverton’s swing will sting the most, given it is the largest majority in history to be lost at a by-election. Oliver Dowden’s resignation as party chairman has intensified calls for the Prime Minister’s head, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from Partygate, it’s that Boris Johnson has never heard of the phrase ‘do the honourable thing’. 

Team Boris tried their best to change the pre-by-election rhetoric by leaning into the strike chaos. They rather strangely blamed it on Labour, harkening back to the 1970s. Much to Johnson’s dismay this didn’t cut through. Most people are conscious of the fact that Labour haven’t been in power for over ten years. The 1970s scaremongering hasn’t worked because the majority of the population simply aren’t old enough to remember it. This strategy stank of desperation and was torn apart live on air, day after day this week by the straight-talking RMT leader Mick Lynch. Lynch eviscerated every MP and interviewer unlucky enough to be put in front of of him. If strikes do become a common theme in the coming months, Lynch could become a prominent thorn in Johnson’s side. In some good news for the PM, Lynch would be just as big a thorn for Starmer as well. Maybe the Labour leader could learn a thing or two from Lynch about how not to be boring. 

What next, then, for Boris? He has always maintained strong support from his cabinet but were key ministers to follow Dowden in resigning and call for the PM to step down then that could be enough to convince Johnson that his time is, finally, up.  Without a no confidence vote in the short term, however, there is always the chance that he may try to hang on further.

In the immediate future, after next week’s G7 Summit, you’d get good odds on a Cabinet reshuffle. A reshuffle would give the illusion of change, with junior minister roles filled by Gullis-esque Johnsonian backbenchers, promised jobs in return for their support during the recent post-jubilee coup attempt, as well as one or two big name shifts, dependent on further cabinet resignations. This won’t be enough on its own, however. The messaging will be key and that’s what’s been sorely lacking.

In this morning’s media rounds Tory MPs have been blaming the poor results on the cost of living crisis. This begs the question as to why they haven’t really done much about it yet? If the answers are so obvious then maybe action would be better than complete paralysis in the face of the highest inflation seen for thirty years and spiralling energy prices. Absent any progress on the cost of living, the risk for Johnson of a Conservative Party rule change to force another confidence vote becomes much more real. The Rwanda policy blew up in his face, the housing reforms have fallen flat and more controversies have mounted. The potential Summer of Strikes ahead would beleaguer the government and maintain the pressure. Without a clear message cutting through and with the very real prospect of losing their seats in the next election, many previously wavering MPs will switch camps in the next confidence vote. The protracted death of the Johnson regime continues.

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