A Broken PactThe ‘Red Wall’ Revolt Represents the Toppling of Boris Johnson’s Messiah Myth
The Prime Minister has broken the moral code on which he was elected by those who took a chance on his leadership, says Sam Bright
“Everyone is a lamb to the slaughter for the man who wanted to be king of the world and pissed it all away,” one Conservative MP texted ITV News‘ UK editor Paul Brand yesterday evening.
After achieving an 80-seat majority just two-years ago, Boris Johnson’s leadership of the Conservative Party is now on the brink of collapse – spurred by a ‘Red Wall’ revolt among MPs who owe their place in Parliament to the Prime Minister’s 2019 election success.
Indeed, according to reports, roughly 20 MPs elected for the first time in 2019 have now submitted letters to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, expressing no confidence in Johnson. If Brady receives 54 letters, a vote will be triggered within the party about whether to keep Johnson as party leader and Prime Minister.
The architects of this plot are drawn from the ‘Red Wall’ – a cluster of predominantly former industrial seats in the north of England, the midlands and north Wales, many of which flipped from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019 for the first time in decades.
There has been some shock that these MPs would initiate a mutiny against Johnson – the patron of their political success. However, the uprising is a manifestation of the anger felt by their constituents, in relation to Johnson’s lockdown impunity and his subsequent denials, and the politically precarious position of these new Tory seats.
The current state of affairs is summarised by former Downing Street pollster James Johnson, who notes that Labour now leads in the Red Wall by 48% to 37%. If this voting intention was applied to a general election, the Conservative Party would lose all but three of its 45 Red Wall constituencies.
This collapse in Conservative support has coincided with the plummeting personal popularity of the Prime Minister in the Red Wall – which now stands at -35. Even Brexit supporters in the Red Wall, who propelled the party to its largest majority in 20 years, now have an unfavourable view of Johnson – 37% of those surveyed say that he is doing well and 57% say that he is doing badly.
In a major blow to Johnson’s leadership, one Red Wall Conservative MP, Christian Wakeford of Bury South, has now defected to the Labour Party.
Public anger with Johnson and his administration is certainly not reserved to one part of the country. More than a dozen parties were held in Downing Street and across Whitehall during multiple lockdown periods in 2020 and 2021, with the full knowledge and even the active participation of the Prime Minister.
Wine was poured, cheese was shared and swings were broken – yet Johnson has performed ever-more ludicrous verbal acrobatics to deny his own culpability. Having initially claimed that no parties were held and that no rules were broken, the Prime Minister now says that he was not forewarned that an event he attended at the height of the first lockdown – involving the instruction to “bring your own booze!” to dozens of Downing Street staff – breached the very rules that he created.
However, this violation of public confidence is particularly acute, and politically significant, in the Red Wall.
As has been reported endlessly for the past six years, the Brexit campaign provided an outlet for disenfranchised and despondent voters to express their anger with the existing political consensus. A new emblem was created, Vote Leave, ostensibly unaffiliated with the main parties, which promised radical social, economic and political reform.
The Brexit campaign and its slogan “take back control” quickly became a new political religion – a cause that galvanised people in neglected areas, a vast swathe of whom had simply stopped voting prior to the 2016 EU Referendum.
Indeed, voting to leave the European Union was a leap of faith for these voters, who had grown sickened by the lies and the corruption that, in their view, had become all-pervasive in British politics. The Iraq War; the MPs’ expenses scandal; Nick Clegg’s tuition fees betrayal – all of this was indicative, in their eyes, of a system that was fundamentally and irrevocably broken.
In this context, the Leave campaign was a potential saviour, and Boris Johnson was its messiah. He became a vessel for the Brexit project – its most prominent and ardent advocate – and reunited the Vote Leave team in Downing Street in 2019, sweeping to victory as voters in left-behind towns once again placed their trust in him to “get Brexit done”.
This is why Johnson’s deception over the Downing Street parties cuts so deeply in the Red Wall. He was seen as a hero – the man sent from Eton to liberate the people from their poverty, poor health and political marginalisation. His promise was to destroy the ‘old politics’ – plagued by the perceived greed of elected fraudsters – and to create a better country.
Johnson’s violation of his own lockdown rules and – worse – his repeated attempts to deceive the public about these ‘work events’ is a transgression of the moral code on which he was elected.
Red Wall voters knew that Boris Johnson was a bit rogue – a philanderer and an egoist – but their pact with him involved an understanding that they would never be on the wrong end of these toxic traits. This pact has now been broken, re-animating the same feelings of resentment and betrayal that provoked the Brexit vote in the first place, only – this time – the Prime Minister is no longer the beneficiary.
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