The fate of Boris Johnson in the face of the North Shropshire defeat

Rising inflation and the UK's malfunctioning economy are dangerous for the prime minister

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Boris Johnson’s former chief of staff uses the symbol of a shopping trolley when he references the British prime minister in his briefings for subscribers on the online platform Substack.

Dominic Cummings uses the motif as a metaphor for Mr Johnson’s character and, in needing a push, susceptibility to manipulation or at least being steered around.

The literary device is all you need to know about Mr Cummings views, and in light of Mr Johnson’s political troubles, it is a slant that has gained currency in recent weeks.

Mr Johnson vowed to bounce back from the latest "political earthquake" as it was described last week, after a 34 per cent swing against the Conservatives in the North Shropshire by-election. The reverse ranked highly in the top 10 of largest by-election setbacks.

Given the party had successfully defended a similar seat two weeks ago, in the Bexley by-election, there is no doubt that the result was driven by the incessant spate of negative headlines exposing scandals and misbehaviour surrounding Mr Johnson.

It also lifted the veil on the danger for the prime minister in rising inflation and the malfunctioning economy in the UK.

Things are going badly wrong in the British economic model. Without a grip on the pressures that ordinary people are facing, there is a narrative that Mr Johnson is unlikely to reverse. Barring a grotesque single revelation, failure could seal his demise.

It is well known Mr Johnson likes to operate with a ring of chaos accompanying his projects.

The idea that his approach is too chaotic is a real danger for his reputation. If that mismanagement is soon seen to be fuelling the rising cost of living, shortages in the shops and a threat to jobs, voters will take the North Shropshire approach and “give him a kicking”.

Perhaps the shopping trolley should be seen through the lens of the goods it would normally carry, not Mr Cummings's extended play on the idea that Mr Johnson is prone to break down.

After the economic stimulus packages that followed the global financial crisis, inflation in the UK rose and, like now, tipped above 5 per cent.

The process saw the collapse of the Labour government to defeat in the 2010 election.

The Bank of England raised interest rates. It will have a big role to play in the future of the prime minister

Mr Johnson’s surprisingly strong election victory in the late 2019 election defied political gravity. It established a platform for political supremacy on the back of his promise to get Brexit done.

Inflation is the biggest single threat to his ambitions because it undermines any dividends that might come with Brexit.

Rising prices expose personal, family and society-wide vulnerabilities. A failure to slow and stop the bout of inflation would feed claims of a broken nation that might have lost control of its own events. This would cut to the heart of Mr Johnson’s manifesto to "take back control". A political collapse would be the logical outcome.

On the same day as the people of North Shropshire voted, the Bank of England raised interest rates. Policymakers took away the idea that inflation was transitory, or a phenomenon that was passing through the system and out the other side.

The increase in the rate was small. The action at a time when Omicron was triggering a renewed shutdown of the economy, and voters were at the polls, was an assertion of its own independence.

The Bank will have a substantial role to play in Mr Johnson’s fate. If it can pull back the inflation rate in good order the arguments about his chaotic style will run out of steam.

If the Bank is only moderately successful, Mr Johnson’s record will be in the crosshairs.

The levelling up agenda that was supposed to shift priorities to marginalised parts of the country is not in sync with a deflationary challenge.

Mr Johnson has turned Conservative orthodoxy on its head. Not only has there been tax increase in response to the pandemic spending, there has also been a welcoming of higher wages as an objective of economic management. Previous governments would have seen that as a dangerous fanning of expectations, which would have fuelled the loss of monetary control.

In government spending itself, Mr Johnson has said he was not a fan of austerity, the very political core of the Conservative government that came to power in 2010.

The voters of North Shropshire signalled that government services were not being improved enough to keep them onside. There was also frustration among farmers and others that post-Brexit trade was not proving a bonanza for them.

The government is likely to try to make more of a show on both those fronts, and push to show it can deliver.

Should these efforts fall short, and the context is a squeeze on living standards as the inflation battle drags on, there will be few options left for the British prime minister.

Even for a man who takes a bulldozer approach to politics those marshes of unhappiness could become too strong to traverse.

Published: December 18, 2021, 2:00 PM
Updated: December 28, 2021, 3:29 PM