Politics

What does Boris Johnson’s resignation mean for Rishi Sunak?

The resignation of Johnson and two of his allies means the Tories face three by-elections at a time when the prime minister could really do without them

Rishi Sunak and Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson's resignation could mean tricky times for ahead for prime minister Rishi Sunak. Image: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street

Boris Johnson’s resignation as an MP has come at a time when Rishi Sunak can ill-afford more trouble for the Tories.

Johnson called it quits on Friday, opting to resign as Uxbridge and Ruislip MP before the Privileges Committee’s investigation into whether he misled parliament had a chance to deliver a verdict on his conduct while prime minister.

The committee, which had sent its findings to Johnson before he quit, was reportedly due to recommend a suspension of more than 10 days and Johnson described the process as a “witch-hunt” and a “kangaroo court”.

In some ways, Sunak will be glad to see the back of Johnson. The pair were widely reported to have had a rift while Johnson was prime minister and Sunak was chancellor and having Johnson on the backbenches in Parliament is likely uncomfortable for Sunak.

The prime minister may also breathe a sigh of relief at avoiding a House of Commons vote on the Privileges Committee’s findings. This had the potential to divide the Conservative Party and stir up more tensions.

But Johnson has created a political problem for Sunak. The prime minister has faced criticism over allowing Johnson’s resignation honours list to be approved while the Privileges Committee is still investigating him.

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The departure of Johnson and two of his allies also means the Conservatives are about to be tested in three by-elections, while the nature of his exit is likely to remind voters of the parliamentary chaos that dominated much of last year.

Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester, told The Big Issue there aren’t too many positives for Sunak to take from Johnson’s resignation.

“In the short run, it’s a bad thing in my view because it means that Boris Johnson will be the lead item in all the news cycles for a while,” said Ford.

“Boris Johnson is personally pretty unpopular at this point and is damaging to the Conservative brand for the reasons why he’s unpopular. He’s seen as self-interested, corrupt, a serial liar, a rule breaker and someone who basically put his own interests before anything else.

“These are all things that have become increasingly associated with the Conservative Party. And that’s damaging to Rishi Sunak who is trying to reboot his party and recover from the reputational damage done by his two immediate predecessors. So any day where Boris Johnson’s face is grinning out from all of the newspapers and TV news reports is another day when voters are reminded that the Conservative Party is closely associated with Boris Johnson, the Boris Johnson party is still the party running the country.”

Rishi Sunak has tried to bring a degree of stability to Downing Street after the Partygate scandal saw Johnson ousted from office before replacement Liz Truss’s disastrous spell in charge.

He promised “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level” from his government but that’s not quite how things have panned out.

Gavin Williamson and Dominic Raab have been forced out of government over bullying allegations while Tory party chairman Nadhim Zahawi was sacked over tax issues.

Voters sent a message to the Tories at the local elections in May, when the party lost 40 councils and more than 1,000 seats.

Now voters will get their say once again in the upcoming by-election.

Johnson’s resignation means his Uxbridge and South Ruislip in west London seat will be up for grabs in a by-election. Nadine Dorries, a staunch Johnson supporter, also quit on the same day to force a by-election for her Mid-Bedfordshire seat with fellow loyalist Nigel Adams doing the same in Selby and Ainsty, North Yorkshire.

The former prime minister has been Uxbridge and South Ruislip MP since 2015 and had a majority of 7,210 at the 2019 general election, seeing off competition from Labour, Lord Buckethead and Count Binface.

A poll from Lord Ashcroft last week projected Johnson would win a by-election with 50% of the vote ahead of Labour’s Danny Beales, who would get 33% of the vote.

Without Johnson, the outcome of the by-election would be less certain and a Labour win in the constituency would be a huge headache for Sunak.

University of Manchester academic Ford said he expected Labour to take the seat but there could be some comfort for Sunak.

“If Labour were to lose it, it would be really bad news for Labour because it would be like, ‘Why on earth can you not win here?” said Ford.

But an Uxbridge defeat is nothing compared to the problems that losing Dorries’ Mid-Bedfordshire seat would bring.

The Tories have held Mid-Bedfordshire since 1931 and Dorries took 60% of the vote in 2019 with a majority of 24,664. It’s so safe, in fact, that there have been suggestions from some quarters that Dorries stepped aside to allow Johnson to have a safe passage back into parliament. Johnson’s camp declined to comment on whether he would run for the seat. 

Anything less than a convincing win for Rishi Sunak in Mid-Bedfordshire will raise questions.

As for Adams’ Selby and Ainsty, that, too, is a dominant Tory seat. The rural North Yorkshire constituency has been blue since its creation in 2010 and Adams has represented it since then.

Adams had a 20,137 majority in 2019 and a dent in that could cause trouble for Sunak even if the Tories hold the seat.

Ford said: “If Sunak were to lose one of them that’s going to be a substantial setback. If he was to lose both of them it will be a major, major crisis for him.

“Expectations are so low now given the drubbings the Conservatives have got lately, that if Labour win narrowly in Uxbridge and Sunak manages to hold on to one of these two very safe seats, he can probably turn around and spin that as a triumph and the start of a turnaround.”

The results of all three by-elections could be crucial in setting the narrative for next year’s general election.

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The most recent polls from YouGov, published before Johnson’s resignation, showed the Conservatives were lagging behind Labour among voters.

The Tories are on track to get 25% of the vote at the next general election, according to the poll, behind Labour’s 44%.

More Britons also told pollsters that Keir Starmer would make the best prime minister with his 30% approval rating ahead of 26% for Rishi Sunak.

Johnson’s departure is a timely reminder of the “Tory soap opera”, as Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner put it.

If the fallout from Johnson’s resignation and some less than stellar by-election results follow, Sunak faces a battle to turn the Conservative Party’s fortunes around before the general election next year.

And having Johnson firing shots from the outside could make that an even steeper challenge.

“On the one hand you think, ‘Well, Boris is not in parliament so much, that will reduce his capacity to hijack the news agenda’,” said Ford.

“But then you think there’s a big part of the British political press in this country when if Boris Johnson sneezed they’d report it on the front page.

“So I’m not sure this will necessarily greatly reduce his capacity to disrupt things. It may even increase it because he’ll feel less constrained than he has up until now, having departed on very negative terms with the current leadership.”

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