The demise of Boris Johnson is a vital turning point for British public life. The prime minister was not just corrupt but corrupting. He debased the conduct of government and the institutional life of the country. It will take years to recover. But the UK can now turn its back on dishonest, Trump-inspired populism.
The way forward for the left is far from clear however. Johnson had become the Labour party’s best friend. Sleaze and scandal were repelling millions of the prime minister’s former admirers and the popularity of the Conservatives had tanked.
A new Tory leader will be a different prospect for Labour. Although the runners and riders are hardly inspiring, when Conservative governments switch prime ministers, they usually win the next election. The challenge for Labour is to convince swing voters that a new Tory PM is not all the change they need.
Labour will seek to taint every Conservative with guilt by association. The extent to which the party can do that will depend on the candidate the Tories pick. But it will be a challenge to keep minds fixed on this sorry time. After all the parliament has two and a half years still to run. And the better Labour does, the more likely we are to see a full five-year term.
The good news is that Labour’s revival hasn’t just been down to Boris Johnson. Keir Starmer’s success in decontaminating his party is why voters are less scared of dropping the Conservatives. This therefore helps explain Labour’s own progress, the resurgence of the Liberal Democrats, and why people are once again willing to vote tactically.
Now, with Johnson gone, the contrast between Labour and the Conservatives is unlikely to be on conduct and character. It will have to be on content. Starmer must paint the Tory party, onto its fourth prime minister in a dozen years, as the failing status quo and Labour as the party of change and renewal.
That will mean doing much better at convincing voters that the UK’s manifold problems are not acts of God but the product of 12 years of Conservative misrule: costs are spiralling, average real wages are lower than 15 years ago and the NHS is on its knees. People need to believe that the Conservatives are to blame, and that a change in government will make the difference.
Labour must offer a bold alternative – on living standards, public services, job security and climate change. Differentiation on policy – clear red water – is essential to build Labour’s electoral coalition. In particular, the party must convince low-income voters it has answers to the economic insecurities and failing public services that blight their lives.
But Labour must also provide reassurance and security to older, more settled voters. After successive Tory administrations have done such harm, another Tory prime minister should feel like the risky option and Labour the safe pair of hands. To bring this to life, Labour needs a compelling plan to grow the economy and rebuild the public finances, both to deliver prosperity and pay for social renewal.
Therefore, the tens of billions of pounds required to build a genuine alternative should mainly come from faster growth. And, before that growth comes, the costed policies in Labour’s next manifesto will have to be small-scale and symbolic – though the party must be clear they are the start of its ambitions not the end.
These have been momentous weeks and Johnson’s departure is a huge relief. But the reality remains: only a Labour government can deliver the prosperity, security and ecological transition we so badly need.
Illustration credit: Rob Ball