In the end, the pressure was too great even for “Teflon Boris.” On July 7, Boris Johnson officially stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party after more than fifty Tory officials resigned in protest over his mishandling of allegations concerning Deputy Chief Whip Chris Pincher. Announcing his decision, Johnson neither apologized nor agreed to step down immediately as prime minister: he would remain in office until the party elected a new leader. He never even used the word “resign.” Nevertheless, the tenure that Johnson hoped would last ten years or more is at an end, and in just over a month, Britain will have a new prime minister.
Now, for the second time in three years, the United Kingdom is closely watching an election in which the vast majority of the population is unable to take part, with voting limited to Conservative MPs and, for the final round, Conservative Party members. Over the past weeks, successive rounds of voting have eliminated six candidates, leaving former Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss as the final contestants. The battle, perhaps predictably, has not been pretty. Recent debates have been characterized by ad hominem attacks, absurd aspersions (Sunak described his opponent’s economic policies as “Marxist”), and an overall dearth of policy innovation. As of this writing, Truss is firmly in the lead, commanding the favor of 62 percent of Conservative Party members. It remains to be seen whether Sunak’s belated embrace of tax cuts and slightly desperate attempts to lean into culture-war rhetoric will restore his ebbing momentum.
Whoever wins will be rewarded with a historically challenging brief. The next prime minister—who will take office in September—will have to contend with a spiraling cost-of-living crisis (household energy bills are predicted to rise by as much as 74 percent by October), and the winter pressure on a health service already stretched to its limits. With such challenges ahead, Truss and Sunak may well be battling for the chance to undergo political obliteration two years from now. Though the next general election is not formally due until 2024, the Conservatives’ electoral situation is already looking fragile. In June, two by-elections resulted in the Conservatives losing the constituencies of Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton—the latter elected a Liberal Democrat after voting Conservative for over a hundred years. Meanwhile, Conservative MPs in so-called “red wall seats,” traditionally Labour areas that the Conservatives seized in the 2019 election, have warned that their seats may now be imperiled, with many of their constituents complaining that there is still no sign of the promised “levelling up.” In such challenging economic circumstances, it is hardly surprising that concerns over the next general election have frequently surfaced in the current leadership debates, where both candidates have sought to prove, not very convincingly, that they represent the best chance of heading off a Labour victory.
It is, of course, difficult to predict what topics might dominate an election still two years off. Fuel prices, the NHS, growing inequality, and outrage over cruel and divisive immigration policies may all play a part. Alongside these concerns, the future Conservative leader would do well to reckon with one further issue: the smoldering legacy of the Partygate scandal. That Partygate could still play an important role in the next election might seem, on the face of it, rather unlikely. The series of scandals over lockdown parties in Downing Street, in which both Johnson and Sunak were implicated, certainly gripped the public conscience earlier in 2022. In June, after the publication of the long-anticipated Sue Gray report, widespread public anger led to a vote of no confidence in the House of Commons. Once again “Teflon Boris” survived, with the backing of 211 MPs against 148 votes of no confidence.