It has been a week as bloody and as brutal as some of Johnson’s favoured Greek tragedies.
More than 50 ministers have resigned, including multiple Cabinet ministers. The previous record for ministerial resignations was 11 in 1932, showing the extent of unhappiness in the parliamentary party. Following some behind-the-scenes conversations with members of his own Cabinet and chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady, the Prime Minister has announced his resignation.
The constitutional chaos that the government plunged head-first into this week is unprecedented. Government business, including the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill Committee was prevented from taking place in the Commons because of a lack of government ministers. Parliament was at an impasse. The government stopped governing. Instead of being down to 10 men at half-time, the government was fielding five-a-side at premier league level.
In his resignation statement, Boris Johnson indicated he is willing to remain as caretaker until a new Conservative leader is in place. The timetables are expected to be revealed in the coming days, but it is understood he would like to stay until early autumn. Already though, that course may become untenable. Threats of a confidence motion being tabled have been made by the Labour Party and numerous ministers who resigned have indicated they will not return to government if Johnson remains in post. Fears of a lame duck Prime Minister abound, due to his lack of authority and influence now in government and in the party.
Amidst all of fevered discussion there are many practical ramifications. What does this mean for rural areas? For the country?
Between now and October there are only a handful of weeks where Parliament is sitting and legislation can be passed, which in some respects is fortunate. It is essential that parliamentary business, such as the Levelling Up Bill can continue under scrutiny. The PM has appointed figures to his Cabinet – Greg Clark is the new Levelling Up and Housing Secretary and Sir Robert Buckland the new Wales Secretary - but there are scores of ministerial positions left unfilled. This has obvious consequences for ministerial sign-off on policy, for the role that ministers play in the legislative progress of a Bill, and so on. For example, Levelling Up Minister Neil O’Brien, Housing Minister Stuart Andrew and Nature Minister Rebecca Pow all resigned. Departmental hotdesking may have to occur, though this will have clear repercussions for the productivity of government. The ensuing media coverage around the leadership contest will also mean that genuine issues, such as the cost-of-living crisis or the housing crisis will occupy less of the conversation, receive less media scrutiny and so on.
From a rural perspective, we believe it will be mostly business as usual. The government’s flagship levelling up agenda will likely remain, though how it is interpreted at a policy level may depend on the ideological leanings of Johnson’s successor, i.e., a centrist candidate may call for more intervention, a free marketeer may focus on tax cuts to stimulate the economy. The sacking of Michael Gove– the only sacking amidst the en masse walkout was peculiar and Gove, the leading architect of levelling up in government and seen by many as the most effective government operator is a loss to the reforms he was charged with pushing through, but we hope they will remain.
The short-term stalling of the Bill will hopefully be quickly remedied. We are continuing with working on our amendments to the Bill, to ensure that there are legally binding obligations in the Bill for the government to meet rural proofing targets so that rural areas are not left out of the levelling up missive.
Additionally, though this week saw the rollout of the Sustainable Farming Incentive as part of the Environmental Land Management (ELM) scheme, with both Secretary of State and Farming Minister remaining in post to continue overseeing the agricultural realignment. Whilst some MPs will be seeking to delay the transition, we hope they aren’t successful – and will be briefing leadership candidates that we have come too far to abandon long-awaited reforms.
In the longer-term, we must turn our attention to the cohort of MPs running to be leader. We will be writing to all leadership candidates to commit to an ambitious plan for the countryside, and to advocate CLA policies that will unlock the potential of the rural economy. Although it is the same group of MPs who were elected on the Conservative manifesto in 2019, much has changed circumstantially and it is not yet known to what extent Johnson’s successor will deviate from the mandate that was granted by the British electorate.
We expect the leadership race to be completed primarily over the summer, with a successor in place before the Conservative Party Conference in the first week of October. There does not appear to be much appetite for a lengthy contest, and we must not underestimate the efficiency (read: ruthlessness) of the 1922 machine in putting their house in order. Afterall, power is the party’s main aphrodisiac and its premier has lost his, and the party will want to ensure they cauterize the wound to prevent subsequent electoral damage.
The recent byelection results have shown that the rural vote is not to be underestimated, and that the party has a long way to go in terms of regaining that trust. This puts us in a good position to be influencing the future direction of the party, once the shellshock wears off.