Johnson, Starmer and Blackford: Who will be first to go?

Bernard Ponsonby considers which Westminster leader will go amid issues in their respective parties.

Bernard Ponsonby considers whether Johnson, Starmer or Blackford will be first to leave respective parties Getty ImagesParliament TV

It’s not unusual at Westminster for a political leader to be in trouble but it is rare that the leaders of the three largest parties all have varying degrees of disquiet to manage at the same time.

Boris Johnson is the helmsman who keeps on giving in the matter of drowning a crisis. He is the master of the own goal, the ultimate purveyor of a line designed to soothe and yet doing the exact opposite. He is Captain Bungle in the art of political management and the ultimate kamikaze pilot.

As more Tory MPs discover with every passing issue, the defects of judgement and character that hard wire him to incompetence are not going away.

I have long argued he won’t lead the Tories at the next election. The events following two by-election losses last Thursday merely reinforce that belief.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the Adani Group HQ while on the first day of his visit to India.Andrew Parsons via No10 Downing St

When I read over the weekend that he was contemplating winning a third term in office I was tempted to ask, what colour is the sky on your planet?

I could almost hear the squeals of anguish from Tory MPs muttering angry profanities at the Prime Minister’s latest date with unhinged thinking.

It’s not only the arrogance of contemplating a third term when the polls and actual tests of electoral opinion suggest you won’t win a second term.

What Tory MPs continually ask themselves is this, what was he thinking? And therein is the problem. He doesn’t think, he is a creature of verbal knee jerk and strategic spasm. Worse, he almost invariably gets it wrong.

Sir Keir Starmer after Labour's by-election win in Wakefield.Twitter/@Keir_Starmer

There will now be an attempt to tilt the balance of the backbench 1922 Committee to ensure that there can be another leadership challenge.

The current rule prevents one for another year. Even if a new committee were to increase the threshold required for another contest, it will be reached easily given 148 MPs recently registered that they have no confidence in his leadership.

For Boris Johnson it is only a matter of time before he is pushed from power.

The leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer has certainly benefited from voter discontent with Johnson’s premiership. Sir Keir’s problem is that I suspect the modest Labour revival is more of a distrust of the Tories than an embrace of Labour.

At the local elections and in the most recent by-election won by Labour, the performances have been no more than respectable but I would suggest are materially well short of where they should be polling in the midterm of an unpopular government.

Labour are on track to give the Tories a run for their money at the next election but that is all that can be said.

Forget the fantasists who argue a uniform swing as evidenced in Wakefield last week would take Starmer to Number 10.

That is true but it is equally true the analysis is psephological detritus for a by-election is as unreliable a guide to a general election outcome as it is possible to get.

I still have no real idea what Sir Keir stands for, except of course he is not Boris Johnson and is plainly a man of sounder judgement than the Prime Minister.

The key to winning the next election handsomely is to own the politics of the cost-of-living crisis. Where are Labour’s policies? Have I missed something?

Starmer now talks of owning the centre ground as if it represents some hallowed political turf.

I can almost hear Tony Blair whispering in his ear which might explain why Starmer is unable to turn up at a picket line to support workers striking to defend their living standards.

In case Sir Keir misread the politics of the 1970s, let me just say this is not the 1970s, today is not a rerun of militancy born of a mutual distrust between labour and capital.

This is not the industrial relations of secondary picketing, strikes without ballots, riots with the police and a desire to bring down an elected government.

The summer of discontent is an embryonic turning point where Mrs May’s fabled just-about-managing face the prospect of not managing at all.

If Sir Keir tries to analyse the current despair through the prism of a New Labour strategist then he will lose the confidence of his party’s natural supporters.

Labour have lost elections by being well to the left of their natural base but it is equally possible to lose by forgetting your raison d’être.

Of course Sir Keir will be toast if the Durham constabulary issue him with a fixed penalty notice over a breach of Covid rules. It would be ironical if the Covid fallout binned his leadership and not that of the Prime Minister.

That brings me to the SNPs Westminster leader Ian Blackford. Last Thursday Nicola Sturgeon managed to implicitly criticise his handling of the Patrick Grady sex pest affair and yet give him a vote of confidence at the same time.

Ian Blackford has urged MPs to stand against plans to cut foreign aid.Getty Images

This issue, as any journalist will tell you, has been bubbling away under the political surface for a very long time. The allegations have been doing the rounds for ages and a probe has established that Grady was guilty of misconduct.

I don’t know the behind closed door thinking of the SNPs Westminster leadership on this. The impression from a distance has been that they thought they could manage it, make it go away, smooth matters over.

We now have Blackford expressing his regret that the victim who made the complaint against Grady feels let down. We have an apology from the First Minister too and we have Grady exiting the SNP parliamentary group as the police launch a probe into his conduct.

I have seen this train crash many times in politics. Grady is now out of the group and I suggest will not return even if he escapes any criminal charges. He is finished.

The individual, who was the subject of the unwanted advances by two MPs, now has Blackford’s future in his hands. If he elaborates on specifically how Blackford let him down, life could get very uncomfortable indeed for the Westminster leader.

Not long after the First Minister criticised her Westminster colleagues, Blackford decided to give STV and the BBC an interview.

The astonishing aspect of both broadcast interviews is that the MP tried to hold a line which was patently untenable.

He decided that he would shield himself, his group and indeed Grady behind the parliament’s decision to suspend the Glasgow North MP for two days following a finding of misconduct.

Blackford cannot answer questions about himself, Grady’s membership of the group and his fitness to be an MP by pointing to a decision of the House of Commons.

By choosing to hide behind the parliamentary decision on Grady he abrogated his responsibility to the victim of the unwanted advance.

Boris, Keir and Ian have a difficult time ahead. I’m now off to consult the bookies on who is favourite to bite the dust.

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