The dust is settling following the excitement of Monday’s confidence vote in the Prime Minister. Although the diagnosis from most commentators is terminal, and despite 148 blue knives in his back (and front), Boris is still standing. He clearly thinks he has a shot at long-term survival. How then, will the embattled PM turn things around?
A lack of competition, for one. Johnson continues to rely on the fact there is no-one with the obvious chops to be able to corral the same Red Wall votes that got him his 80 seat majority in 2019. With Rishi Sunak having imploded, former leadership rival Jeremy Hunt marred by the fact that he’s already been rejected by Conservative members, and no cabinet members willing to stick their head above the parapet for a leadership challenge, there is a dearth of alternatives.
The PM must not forget, however, that those he needs to get onside number far more than the Red Wall constituents who lent the Conservatives their vote over Jeremy Corbyn. As the upcoming Tiverton and Honiton By-Election will likely illustrate, Johnson is also in danger of losing ground in the Conservative heartlands. He needs to get back to what got him elected. Rather, he needs to deliver on the (non-Brexit) promises that got him elected.
Some progress on the bogged-down Northern Ireland protocol would mute some of the growing calls for a return to the single market, but the real signifier of Johnson’s fightback will be his approach to taxation and the NHS. The Tories’ 2019 manifesto pledged to lower taxes, not put them up to the highest level in nearly 70 years, and the NHS was supposed to improve care thanks to new funding, not be trapped behind long patient wait lists. While Covid and Ukraine can help justify the failures on these fronts, Johnson needs to get back to basics by starting to cut taxes and make headway on the NHS issue in order to re-energise the core conservative vote and dampen discontent among his rebel MPs. If the rebels don’t see a pathway to re-election they will never end their rebellion.
The new ‘Right to Buy’ scheme is a significant first step to try and change the tide, but having seen similar, often rushed policies fail to make much of a splash following moments of Partygate-induced jeopardy, there needs to be a greater movement by Johnson to show the electorate he isn’t just treading water. He needs to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.