Boris Johnson has finally agreed to go. Following an unprecedented number of resignations over the past few days, a Downing Street source said this morning that the Prime Minister conceded – to 1922 committee chair Graham Brady – that it is appropriate for the party to pick a new leader in time for Tory conference. Johnson wants to hang on as a caretaker Prime Minister, possibly right up until the Conservative conference in October. According to early reports, however, senior Tory sources have said this cannot happen. Johnson is expected to make a statement from the steps of No 10 before lunch time.
Keir Starmer described Johnson’s decision as “good news for the country”, but added that it “should have happened long ago”. The Labour leader said: “He has been responsible for lies, scandal and fraud on an industrial scale. And all those who have been complicit should be utterly ashamed. The Tory Party has inflicted chaos upon the country during the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades. And they cannot now pretend they are the ones to sort it out.” He pointed out that the Tories have been in power for 12 years, saying the “damage they have done is profound”, and called for a “fresh start for Britain”.
There are few people who would disagree with Starmer’s analysis that Johnson going is “good”. (Indeed, the Prime Minister has found over the past couple of days just how few people, including those who secured new cabinet positions, thought that he should stay.) Nonetheless, the Labour Party – just like the country – is now facing an unknown commodity. For months, Labour has been watching the wheels come off the Tory Party as Johnson clung on. Now, the opposition party is waiting to see who emerges from a Conservative leadership contest – whoever does will surely lead the Tories into the next election.
Anyone who had been hoping that the party would be facing a terminally damaged Johnson at the next general election will be disappointed. His departure gives the Conservatives a chance to reset and attempt to present a new face to the electorate; an opportunity to claim that the problems with this government all start and end with Johnson. This is an increasingly difficult argument for them – 12 years as it is since the Tories started running the show, long before Johnson became Prime Minister – but an argument they will make nonetheless.
Whether the Tories can do this to a large extent depends on who comes next – some of those tipped as frontrunners in the coming Tory leadership contest are tainted by association. It also depends, however, on the case that Starmer’s Labour now sets out. With Johnson gone, the Labour leader must outline why the Conservatives are wrong for the country. Starmer must offer a critique of the fundamental approach and ideology and, crucially, set out the alternative.Sign up to LabourList’s morning email for everything Labour, every weekday morning.