13 June 2023
Political Therapy: Talking Tory past and future – with our next event on 4 July
On our first night of Political Therapy in March, Steve Richards asked the audience: Will Boris Johnson again be leader of the Conservative Party?
80% of the room voted ‘no’ and 20% ‘yes’. Richards joked that this meant that Johnson would return as Tory leader – as the predictions of his audiences are often wrong.
However, as Johnson has now resigned as an MP, the probability must be increasing that we called his future correctly. It is hard to see Tory HQ permitting Johnson to stand again as a Tory MP under Rishi Sunak’s leadership. Perhaps this barrier will dissolve under some future leader, but lack of a parliamentary seat is a non-negotiable block on Johnson himself being leader.
The descent of Johnson has been rapid. We are 2 years on from the Hartlepool by-election: the first time since 1982 that a governing party gained a seat in a by-election and a victory for the Tories deep in the ‘red wall’ of traditionally Labour-backing seats in the north of England (a political landscape chronicled by Seb Payne, who joins for our next Political Therapy event on 4 July, in Broken Heartlands). Speculation on Johnson being PM into the 2030s was then commonplace.
Now Johnson is outside parliament, never mind Downing Street, and Nigel Farage is hinting at joining forces with him to challenge Sunak from outside the Tory party. Johnson resigned his seat with a delusional statement. Nonetheless, isn’t even his grip on reality firm enough to not embark on such a risky and implausible venture?
It is a prospect that demands more Political Therapy. In our second instalment, Rafael Behr encouraged us to stay engaged without getting enraged. There are different ways to look at the downfall of Johnson: we might be enraged that such a figure ever held our highest political office or (if we remain Johnson devotees) enraged that he now finds himself so far from it. Or just wryly amused that the recently mighty crashed and burned so dramatically. Seeing the funny side of things must be one way to achieve Behr’s non-enraged engagement.
But the joke is not funny for Conservatives. Suddenly facing challenging by-elections – one in the seat that Johnson vacates and two more in seats of allies that have followed him through the exit door (as well as a likely one in Scotland, which will be more a test of the extent to which Labour has recovered against the SNP). Amid a grim economic context of stagflation (high inflation and low growth), polling that indicates the Tories will not win the next general election, and a conspicuous absence of the sunlight uplands of Brexit that Johnson – with the backing of Farage and Sunak – promised.
All of which raises many big questions for Seb to discuss with Nick Timothy, Telegraph columnist and Tory thinker, on
‒ Prospects: How many seats will the Tories win in the upcoming byelections? What will these byelections tell us about the coming general election? Can the Tories retain power at this general election?
‒ Strategy: What does a winning Sunak pitch involve? How will it hold Tory gains in the 'red wall' and stop the 'blue wall' (seats usually loyal to the Tories in the south east) cracking? And hold on for a 1992-style victory?
‒ The Tory future: Is there any scenario, following general election defeat, where Sunak stays as leader of the opposition? If not, who is most likely to replace him? Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch? Guided by Thatcherism or national conservatism? Or what?
‒ The Tory past: Whatever happened to 'the big society'? The early days of David Cameron's government now seem a long time ago but what have five prime ministers (for one of whom Nick was joint chief of staff) and 13 years of Tory government taught us?
‒ Brexit: No regrets? How will it combine with a UK that retains Scotland, a flourishing economic model outside the EU single market, and the global projection of British political influence outside the EU?
You do not need to be a Tory to be interested in these questions. You just need to want Political Therapy: political chat in a friendly place. You can buy tickets here.