Will it take Boris Johnson to save the Tories in this year's general election?

Former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke’s rise in 1983 could be instructive for British politics in the weeks ahead

Former prime minister Boris Johnson and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak during the Remembrance Sunday service at the Cenotaph in London in November 2022. PA Images
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British political history tends to draw its parallels along party lines.

So when the Conservative party looks for lessons, it tends to cite past experiences of Australia’s Liberal-National coalition or the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

It’s the same with the Labour party and the equivalent centre-left parties in the Westminster parliamentary systems elsewhere in the world. In fact, when Labour poll campaign manager Morgan McSweeney wants to drill down on the dangers of complacency in the forthcoming general election, he has a ready example from Australia’s Labour and its past failures to convert poll leads into power.

After the events of last week saw a further significant erosion in Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s grip on power, there is a historic example from one of Australia’s Labour Party heroes that could prove instructive for the Conservatives and shape British politics this year.

The late Bob Hawke, who was the biggest political personality that Australia has seen in living memory, became prime minister in 1983 as a result of a whipsaw turn of events that upended a general election in a matter of weeks. Could it be that somewhere lurking just outside of London, former prime minister Boris Johnson is studying the template particularly closely? Here’s how it would work.

The man who was supposed to run as Australian Labour’s prime ministerial candidate in 1983 was opposition leader Bill Hayden. But a by-election went badly for his party at the end of 1982, and Mr Hawke pounced against his rival. On the day that Mr Hayden resigned, then-prime minister Malcolm Fraser of the Liberal Party triggered a general election. He hoped to capitalise on a parallel Labour intra-party leadership election.

Instead, Mr Hawke was installed by acclamation from Labour MPs, and the general election became a two-man race that Mr Hawke won handily.

Bob Hawke was a renowned larrikin in Aussie politics. His British equivalent is not obvious, but Boris Johnson comes close

Mr Sunak this week said he would not hold a general election on May 2 when there are local elections that are pretty much nationwide. Those votes are expected to land like a tsunami against the Conservatives. That is why this is a key date in the course of the year.

Mr Sunak’s party has already suffered historic-scale reverses in individual by-elections, such as the 28.5 per cent loss in the recent vote in Wellingborough. That result rivalled a 1994 defeat under then-Conservative prime minister John Major that set the stage for his devastating wipe-out in 1997.

However, Mr Sunak has just a few months, perhaps even only a few weeks, on his side – not the three years that Mr Major had at his disposal.

As audacious as Mr Hawke’s power play was in 1983, it would be seismic for the Conservative party to switch out its leader now. And it may not work either. Mr Hawke, after all, only had to win as opposition leader. Moreover, anyone replacing Mr Sunak would have to lead a clapped-out and feudally divided governing husk of a political movement into a dramatic revival.

Yet listen to the words of Justine Greening, a centrist former Conservative cabinet minister who was spat out by the party’s civil war years ago.

Asked about reports of a push to replace Mr Sunak on Friday night, she was clear-eyed. “It does feel that [with] the polls, as they are, this is getting unsustainable,” she said on the BBC. “You can’t just bump along in the teens, or the low 20s. If MPs are starting to get around a particular alternative, then maybe things can move quite fast.”

So if there is a quick shift, how could this really happen?

The particular scenario put to Ms Greening was that a member of Mr Sunak’s cabinet could take over. This would involve a visit to Downing Street by what is known to the UK political scene as the men in grey suits. These senior sages would stand over the Prime Minister to force the inevitable recognition that the game was up.

There are plenty of parliamentarians who could carry out this task.

The stout figure of James Heappey, the armed forces minister, became the 62nd Conservative MP to announce that he would not contest the next election. To go back to the reference to Mr Major’s fate, that figure is just sort of the 70-plus who stood down in 1997. Many are jumping before they think they will be pushed out by the voters. They are free, therefore, to take destiny into their own hands.

So it is possible to foresee a quick unravelling that results in the defenestration of Mr Sunak before he would rally any kind of rear-guard action. Penny Mordaunt, the leader of parliamentary business, is in the frame as the alternative consensus candidate this week.

The key to a changeover at this stage is that it has to be done without the long-lasting internal party procedure; Mr Hawke rose because his Labour Party did not bring its own voting process into action. With the poll numbers so bad and the judgment of the electorate closing in, it is possible that the Conservatives struggle to get to the trigger point until the last moment.

Mr Hawke was a renowned larrikin in Aussie politics. His British equivalent is not obvious, but Mr Johnson comes close.

Unlike Mr Hawke in 1983, Mr Johnson already has a track record of winning impossible elections. If the party acclaimed the once disgraced former leader in an act of desperation, his resignation from Westminster could be reversed. As he mused on leaving office, the herd can shift.

An election could open up a seat like his first constituency Henley, which is becoming vacant. The awkward switchback in No 10 would not be an issue in the process of an election. The challenge to the system that Mr Johnson posed in the 2019 vote worked with voters. It was the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic that caught him out and forced him to step down.

With the situation being so volatile in the Conservative party, maybe even Boris can bob back to the top.

Published: March 18, 2024, 7:00 AM