It is two years since the election of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Far from delivering on his promises to usher in a new age of ‘levelling up’, Johnson’s repeated car crashes and blunders means his authority is reaching the end of the line. His reputation lies in tatters. Recent polls reveal a clear majority – 57 per cent – supporting resignation, up rapidly by 9 per cent following last week’s Christmas party revelations.
Now, even 101 of Johnson’s own MPs have voted against many of the government’s ‘Plan B’ proposals for containing the virus, marking the largest backbench revolt to face the current government so far. Although Labour’s loyal support for the government has allowed the plan to pass, this latest rebellion lifts the lid on the internal unrest engulfing the Tories.
The upcoming by-election in North Shropshire – due to be held on Thursday – will provide a telling window into the public mood. Taking place in the home of disgraced former MP Owen Paterson, all indications point to the decimation of the Tories’ hold over the seat, bringing a speedy end to the 23,000-vote majority the party enjoyed in 2019.
Even the most Tory-loyal sections of the capitalist media have turned their backs for now on Johnson. Johnson’s own former employer, The Daily Telegraph, summed up the situation: “the fairground attraction of Boris’s Number 10 suddenly seems to have lost all of its amusement value”. Unrest on the backbenches now threatens Johnson’s leadership. His rivals scent blood.
Christmas at Number 10
Omicron looks set to continue infecting with rapid speed. Currently doubling its reach every two days and reportedly infecting up to 200,000 daily, working class people across the country are rightly concerned in the run-up to the Christmas period.
But for Johnson, this could not have happened at a worse time. Not out of concern for the wellbeing of ordinary people, but out of fear of the sordid details of his Number 10 Christmas parties coming to further light. Already, eight separate events look like they most likely had been rule-breaking. While London sat in various degrees of restrictions last year, with millions of working class families deprived of the right to see one another, while many had to endure crippling isolation, all signs point to Johnson and his chums laughing and celebrating with champagne and canapes, sitting underneath Johnson’s giant Margaret Thatcher portrait.
In response, the government has ranged from denying any wrongdoing (which would raise the question of why he has since sacked two high-level aides), to conducting its own sham investigations. This even includes an inquiry conducted by Johnson’s own private secretary Simon Case. In case you were under any illusions, yes, this is the government investigating itself to see whether it had done wrong. We won’t hold our breath for the results.
Crisis of capitalism
Now, the longer Johnson now stays in, the further tarnished will be the Tory brand. But this is only the start of the story. The callous elitism and double standards for the rich and powerful on show here could potentially place the health of millions at risk. In the event of new restrictions being introduced, many will undoubtedly ask: ‘how are we supposed to comply with restrictions from a government that won’t even follow its own guidance?’
But this is only one problem for the Tories. Johnson and his government are proving unable to navigate this unparalleled crisis for the system. British capitalism, since the Covid crisis began, has only managed to gather an extremely limited ‘bounce back’. Recent research shows that GDP growth for October sat at only 0.1 per cent. Real wages for November sat 0.8 per cent lower than in September, contributing to the worst Christmas wage squeeze in more than a decade, while living costs are set to skyrocket by £1000 per month for most working class families through 2022.
Even before the onset of Omicron, the situation for key workers has been dire to say the least. Record levels of burnout, absence, and a feeling of being ‘Covid cannon fodder’ have been widely reported. But while the NHS already is bursting at the point of capacity, Johnson’s response, far from providing the emergency funding needed, has been to turn toward planning increased night working for NHS staff!
While the Tory ship sinks, Starmer’s Labour has managed to edge itself forward, leading in the polls by anything between 5 and 8 per cent.
While this will be used to try and prove the success of their ‘say nothing and do nothing’ approach, that does not match reality. These results, while showing a widespread desire to have ‘anybody but Johnson’ in power, reflect only a collapse of Johnson’s vote, far from any kind of ‘Starmer surge’. The overwhelming majority of polls indicate an overall shift towards a ‘don’t know’ position, instead of an enthusiastic cheerleading for Starmer’s New Blairism.
Having reshuffled his cabinet to purge the very last vestiges of influence from the left, Starmer’s promotion of uber-Blairites like Wes Streeting while digging up the graves of old-school Blairites like Yvette Cooper has been part-and-parcel of a calculated policy to present himself as a ‘grown-up’ politician to Britain’s ruling class. Hence his refusal to even call for Johnson’s resignation!
Shockingly little has been put on offer by Starmer beyond a promise to essentially do what the Tories have done – but ‘better’. Pledging to act in the “national interest” (i.e. the interests of the capitalists) and perform his “patriotic duty”, Starmer’s chief promise has not been to take action against NHS privatisation to aid with an emergency response, or to address the most urgent needs of working class people, but to try to demonstrate as much as he can Labour’s position as a party that is truly safe for capitalism after the end of Corbynism. A working-class, socialist alternative to this is urgently needed, now more than ever. An alternative that is rooted in ongoing struggles against fire-and-rehire and all attacks on workers, for radical climate action and mass protests against oppression.
The way out: socialism
Omicron is certainly not going to be the final variant of Covid-19. But this does not mean that a way out of Covid crisis and economic chaos is impossible. It will, however, require a fighting political alternative being built. The example set by the inspiring March for Midwives, along with the developing mini-strike wave across a number key unions in the last few months, along with the election of Sharon Graham as Unite General Secretary shows the existing mood to build and coordinate such a fightback.
All existing pay ballots and ballots for industrial action must be coordinated nationally to set an example of what can be done for workers to fight for an emergency Covid response from below. This will have to include an emergency programme to increase staffing and capacity in hospitals, to refit schools in need of improved ventilation and ramp up staffing in all key industries that need it, on the basis of democratic public ownership of the key sections of the economy.
Johnson must be forced out, and the Tories along with him. But we also need to urgently build a movement that can end the chaos of capitalist rule and for a democratically-planned socialist economy. It is capitalism’s failure to deal with Covid’s spread globally that allows the virus to continue mutating and spreading new variants. By denying the poorest corners of the world access to vaccinations, continued mutations of the virus will not stop wreaking havoc across the world. The response to it will have to be in our hands – not the Tories and the capitalist elite they serve.
By Tom Costello, Socialist Alternative England, Wales and Scotland