Boris Johnson is on the ropes. Hiding inside 10 Downing Street following a remarkably well-timed family Covid infection, he’s up against a barrage of attacks from within his own party and across society. The reason, well known by now, is allegations that a succession of parties were held at Downing Street throughout the pandemic while the rest of the country was under strict orders to stay indoors and observe repeated national lockdowns. Johnson admitted attending one party in May 2020, when the virus was hitting the country’s elderly population particularly badly, and several more were held later that year, as millions were prevented from seeing their loved ones over Christmas.
The scandal has radically altered the fortunes of Johnson’s premiership. A Savanta ComRes poll carried out following the revelations about the May 2020 party revealed that 66% thought Johnson should resign, alongside a whopping 42% of 2019 Tory voters. With wall-to-wall media coverage casting the prime minister in an overwhelming negative light, the crisis blitzing the government is nothing short of devastating. But for socialists who want to see an end to Tory rule, can we use it to our advantage?
British newspapers call Johnson a ‘liar’ over allegations that a succession of parties were held at Downing Street during lockdown, January 2022. EyePress/Reuters
When Johnson was elected with a landslide majority in December 2019, many socialists felt the earth disappear from underneath them. A new period of Conservative supremacy had been inaugurated on the back of the failure of the Corbyn project, which so many of us had invested energy in. There are many things that have shocked me since December 2019, but if you had told me then that Johnson – a man whose unique blend of skilful opportunism and brute decisiveness was able to unify a rudderless, dysfunctional Tory party – would face the sack within two years, I would have laughed you down the street. This, however, is the situation we’re now in, and the question beckons: what exactly do socialists want to do about it?
We could remain agnostic, viewing the whole saga as a carefully managed media spectacle with little scope for impact beyond the halls of Westminster and the studios of Broadcasting House. We may pause for a moment and reflect on whether we actually want Johnson gone at all. His removal, after all, will just put an end to the current dilemmas facing the Tories, and pave the way for a more polished yet viciously austere prime minister such as Rishi Sunak. We might even display frustration at the British public for reserving their anger for what was, in the end, ‘just a party’, when instead they could have displayed outrage at the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands throughout the pandemic, the authoritarian police, crime, sentencing and courts bill, or the nakedly racist nationality and borders bill.
There are some difficulties with these approaches if they are to remain the socialist movement’s default settings, however.
Firstly, whilst it’s no secret that large swathes of the establishment want Johnson gone, and there is always scope for a ruling party as attuned and adept as the Conservatives to limit the contours of this particular crisis, the fury throughout the country is palpable. Polling is one thing, but just listen to phone-in radio shows, see the Facebook posts from distant family members, or listen to the chat in the work lunchroom. Millions are seething, with many acutely aware of the difference between what they’ve endured throughout the pandemic and what Johnson was able to get away with.
Secondly, we can’t underestimate just how much of an asset Johnson had become for the Conservative party. Not only had he managed to unify a party which had spent the best part of the 2010s at each other’s throats over Europe, but he’d successfully put to bed the radical leftwing threat posed by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party and made significant incursions into so-called Labour heartlands in the process. The issues and divisions the Tories faced over Europe and the solution to the crisis of British capitalism haven’t been solved. In fact, Britain’s departure from the EU and the swell of economic shocks posed by the pandemic will continue to wreak havoc for the Tories – and with increasing ferocity. Socialists should welcome the obstacles facing our enemies, particularly when they throw into question the Tories’ electoral supremacy and their dubious post-2019 claim to a more proletarian veneer.
Thirdly, I think we run into an issue if we, as radicals who desperately want the capitalist system dismantled, get into the habit of bemoaning people for their undeniably legitimate outrage. These revelations might not spark a revolution, but they have incited an entirely justified wave of resentment and revulsion precisely because the parties at 10 Downing Street took place whilst people were alone over Christmas, or unable to say goodbye to their dying loved ones. The whole affair displays the rank hypocrisy of this country’s ruling elite, and their disdain towards the working-class majority. Surely, we want to find ways to harness this rage, and transform it into anger at the catastrophic handling of the pandemic, the police bill and the borders bill? Don’t we socialists want to generalise and join together the various pools of antagonism which stagnate around the country?
The truth is that the Tories partied it up whilst we locked down, suffered and died. The radical left should have a hand in organising the rage which exists at this state of affairs. We should call protests demanding Johnson go, and invite those who lost loved ones over video calls to lead them. We should be seeking to connect the deep reservoirs of public indignation at these revelations to the litany of assaults this government is currently waging against workers, racialised minorities, women and the trans community, amongst others.
To scoff at the public’s reaction, to suggest this is all simply a distraction, to dismiss the grief, is to remove our capacity to relate to the justified fury which bubbles beneath the surface of this country. But to embrace the animosity, to try and organise it, and to proceed like a movement that might once again be an agent capable of contributing towards the downfall of a racist, murderous, ruling-class politician such as Boris Johnson – well, that should be socialists’ bread and butter.
Jonas Marvin is an independent activist and researcher.