LONDON — For Boris Johnson, Britain’s embattled and scandal-ridden prime minister, nowhere is safe.
On Thursday, that may become inescapably clear. Two local elections — one in a traditional Tory area in South Devon that the party has controlled almost continuously since 1885, the other in a postindustrial seat in North England that the Tories took from Labour for the first time in 90 years in 2019 — will deliver a decisive assessment of Mr. Johnson’s flailing popularity. As things stand, the Conservatives are set to lose both.
Mr. Johnson’s ability to win over such disparate people and places — affluent farmers and neglected manufacturers, the shires in the South and old Labour heartlands in the North — once ensured his position at the top of the Conservative Party. Yet now, as Britain hovers on the brink of economic recession, the constituencies that previously united around the prime minister appear to be rejecting him. For Mr. Johnson, his authority frayed by a recent no confidence vote, a double defeat would leave his tenure hanging by a thread.
But the Conservatives’ problems are much bigger than the prime minister. After 12 years in office, under three different leaders, the Conservatives have collectively set the stage for Britain’s woes. The balance sheet is dire: Wages haven’t risen in real terms since 2010, austerity has hollowed out local communities, and regional inequality has deepened. Britain’s protracted departure from the European Union, pursued by the Conservatives without a clear plan, has only made matters worse.
For this litany of failures, the Conservatives seem to be finally paying the price. After four successive electoral victories, each one with a larger share of the vote, the party has trailed in the polls all year. Thursday’s elections are likely to be yet another indicator of the public’s growing disenchantment, one that bodes badly for the party’s chances in the next election, due by the start of 2025. Unable to address the country’s deep-seated problems and devoid of direction, the Conservatives are in trouble — whether led by Mr. Johnson or not.
As the prices of food and energy soar to record levels, Conservatives can point to causes outside their control: the pandemic’s global disruption, lockdowns in China, Russia’s war in Ukraine. But they cannot explain why, in this time of global crisis, Britain is afflicted with particular severity. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain’s economy won’t grow at all next year — a bleak forecast shared only, among major economies, with Russia.
That should concern the Conservatives, whose dismal economic record is visible everywhere, from rising levels of poverty to chronically underfunded public services. In the National Health Service, to which Conservatives love to pronounce their loyalty, wages for health care workers have fallen in real terms, and an estimated 110,000 positions lie vacant. As the waiting list for medical attention hits an all-time high, ever more Britons are going private: The average amount now spent by households on health care, as a percentage of G.D.P., is nearing levels in America. For a country so proud of its public health care, it’s an especially painful development.
For Conservatives, the chaos of Mr. Johnson’s prime ministership offers another appealing alibi. Having first ridden on the back of Mr. Johnson’s unruliness, Conservatives now claim that it is impeding their ability to address the serious problems facing the country. They often complain that they just want to “get back to governing.” But the truth is that Conservatives gave up on governing long ago — a fact that accounts both for Britain’s current mess and Mr. Johnson’s appeal in the first place.
Indeed, while Mr. Johnson’s own desperation to become party leader was always an open secret, his eventual rise to the top relied on his Conservative colleagues’ desperation as well. By 2019, after almost a decade in power and with little positive to show for it, there was a pressing need to plot a new national course. In a rut and out of ideas, Conservatives turned instead to a known peddler of feel-good fantasies. Mr. Johnson offered Conservatives an escape — from Europe, seriousness and self-doubt. What he lacked in sense of direction he made up for with his boundless optimism and sense of humor. Punch lines could take the place of policy, raising spirits if not wages.
Mr. Johnson’s boosterism, giddily amplified by his cheerleaders in the right-wing press, worked for a while. During the push to leave the European Union, and even during the devastatingly mishandled pandemic, Mr. Johnson could play the role of mascot, rallying the nation for the task ahead. But now in the wreckage of that double disruption, each one exacerbated by Mr. Johnson’s incompetence, the Conservative leader has lost his charm. His jokes, amid an escalating cost-of-living crisis, fall flat. And having finally “got Brexit done,” as his winning campaign slogan promised, Mr. Johnson struggles to pin blame for the nation’s troubles on the European Union. Fed up with broken promises and brazen deceit, voters are turning against him.
But Conservatives can avoid their own reckoning for only so long. First through austerity, then through Brexit and Mr. Johnson, the Conservatives have left Britain in the ruins of their ambition. Each one of their proposed solutions, offered in the name of national renewal, has made the situation worse. No one in the party can escape blame for this baleful legacy. One of the pretenders to Mr. Johnson’s throne — Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss or Jeremy Hunt — may offer a change in style. But a substantial change of course is unlikely to come. An economy predicated on low productivity and low investment, buttressed by a self-defeating lack of seriousness about Britain’s condition, is all the Conservatives seem to be able to offer.
In the 1960s, an English satirist named Peter Cook warned that Britain was in danger of “sinking giggling into the sea.” Today, the feeling is pervasive. Over 12 years, the Conservatives have unmoored Britain from its foundations and perpetuated a failed economic model, accelerating the nation’s descent into disorder. For the most part, Conservatives have cheered the country on its way. On Thursday, Britain will at least learn if the tide is finally turning.
Samuel Earle (@swajcmanearle) is a British journalist at work on a book about how the Conservative Party has dominated Britain for almost two centuries.
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