It’s just over two years since Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won a large majority in the British general election, with its promise to “get Brexit done”. That promise was kept: Britain left the European Union last year, although negotiations continue on the ramifications of its departure, particularly for Northern Ireland.
But Johnson remains torn by the conflict between his two ambitions: to be a successful prime minister and to be a troll. At the crunch, he let the former predominate in his dealings with the EU, but the latter keeps popping back up. One example came early last month, when he tried to trash the system for investigating misconduct by MPs in order to protect one of his own backbenchers, Owen Paterson, who had taken money to lobby ministers.
The government backed down after a public outcry, and Paterson, facing suspension, resigned his seat of North Shropshire. That put the government in a bad position to fight a by-election; nonetheless, Paterson had held the seat by a margin of more than forty points, so the prospect of actually losing it seemed fairly remote.
But things continued to go badly for the government. Covid-19 made a comeback, courtesy of the Omicron variant, and when Johnson – in another concession to realism – introduced new restrictions to combat it, 99 Conservative MPs crossed the floor to oppose them, meaning that they only passed because of Labour’s support. There were also revelations that Johnson himself appeared to have breached Covid restrictions before Christmas last year.
A by-election on 2 December in Old Bexley & Sidcup, caused by the death of its Conservative member, was a win for the government, but its vote fell by 13 points. Then last week came disaster in North Shropshire, when the Liberal Democrats not only won the seat but did so comfortably, with 47.2% to the Tories’ 31.6%, a margin of almost 6,000 votes.
Two years ago the Lib Dems had only 10% and were in third place. Labour had 22.1% last time, but it calculated that this was not the sort of seat it could win, so it ran dead: its vote fell to 9.7%, just as in Old Bexley & Sidcup, with the roles reversed, the Lib Dem vote fell to 3.0% and fifth place with the intention of benefiting Labour.
More than the result itself, this co-operation between the two main opposition parties is a very bad sign for the government. Although Keir Starmer has had his troubles as Labour leader, he has a pragmatism that was entirely lacking in his predecessor, Jeremy Corbyn. At some level he realises that Labour can’t do this on its own – it needs to marshal a broad coalition, and the Lib Dems need to be part of it.
A great deal can change in the three years before Johnson has to go back to the polls. But it’s not at all clear that his party will give him that long. Having previously worked hard to make the Tory Party ungovernable, he is now reaping the reward; like Johnson himself, its members want incompatible things, and are ready to take out their anger on those who fail to produce them.
David (Lord) Frost, the minister in charge of the Brexit negotiations, resigned at the weekend, apparently dissatisfied with the prime minister’s drift to the centre on both Northern Ireland and the Covid restrictions. While it seems there is no immediate threat to Johnson’s position, he is looking at a difficult winter ahead.