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Boris Johnson’s survival is Labour’s opportunity

Ben Nunn was Labour Party leader Keir Starmer’s director of communications from 2017 to 2021. He’s now senior counsel at Lexington

The Queen’s Jubilee weekend taught us something about politics: Prince Charles has little influence over Conservative MPs.

On Sunday, he told a street party in Kennington that he hoped after the long weekend, we wouldn’t go back “to all the bickering again.”  

Yet by Monday morning, the Chairman of the 1922 Committee Graham Brady was announcing a vote of confidence in Prime Minister Boris Johnson. And by Monday evening, Conservative MPs had seriously damaged Johnson’s authority.

Such moments of crisis for the government present opportunities for the opposition, however — and one the Labour Party should seize.

I’ve always been skeptical about the idea that Boris Johnson’s a universally popular politician. It’s often forgotten that his personal ratings at the last general election were lower than his predecessor Theresa May’s in 2017. However, though he’s always been political Marmite, the collapse in his authority over the past year has been truly astonishing.

Few could have anticipated in December 2019 that it’d be the Conservative Party facing a leadership crisis two years later. Johnson survived last night’s vote, but his command is severely damaged. Many admit in private, the rebel vote was higher than loyalists had hoped.

Johnson’s now a seriously wounded prime minister. He did worse than previous Conservative leaders when facing confidence votes — Thatcher in 1990, Major in 1995 and May in 2018. Questions remain about whether he can survive, whether any ministers will resign and, if he doesn’t stay, who will succeed him. 

At the same time, days like this are always strange for the official opposition party. Westminster will be bustling this morning: Conservative MPs will be huddled in small groups trying to work out what’s going on; journalists will be walking around trying to get the next scoop on who’s in and who’s out; and TV cameras set up on College Green, opposite the House of Commons, will be broadcasting assessments of rebels, loyalists and analysts.

However, Labour Party staff will be turning up to work feeling — frankly — irrelevant. Political advisers will find their phones deathly quiet this morning. It’s an odd feeling — and one I experienced on more than one occasion, especially during Theresa May’s premiership, amid endless speculation about her leadership.

The easiest thing the Labour Party could do right now is enjoy the irrelevance — to step back and watch the Conservative Party tear itself apart on national television. However, this would be the wrong thing to do. 

Politics is fundamentally about choices: tax cuts versus tax rises, leave versus remain, austerity versus investment. Now is a chance for Labour — and particularly party leader Keir Starmer — to outline the choices he favors.

In the coming days an intervention should frame the government’s crisis on Labour’s terms, in a way that speaks directly to the country — that the choice is between a divided government that can no longer govern and a united opposition that’s ready to govern.

It’s also an opportunity to attack the Conservative brand. Despite yesterday’s result, which saw 41 percent of the parliamentary Conservative party vote against Johnson, Starmer still doesn’t know the prime minister he’ll face in the 2024 election — but he does know the party he’ll face.

Starmer should shift his criticism away from Johnson and focus on the government as a whole, whether that’s on accusations of incompetence, low economic growth or the absence of a coherent vision.

And finally, now is the time to ignore Westminster and talk to the country.  

Most people waking up this morning are worried about the same things they were yesterday: the economy, the soaring cost of living, their job and the state of their local community. Those are the issues that matter now, and they are the issues that’ll determine the next election. While the government argues with itself, Labour can be making the bigger arguments about the country and — crucially — how to grow the economy.

One thing is clear, though. Whatever the Conservative Party chooses to do — whether Johnson stays or goes in the next few months — I’m sorry to say, Prince Charles, the bickering won’t end anytime soon.

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