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Boris Johnson "Is Not Long For This World" According To Prime Minister's Biographer

5 min read

Leading historian and the biographer of a string of recent Prime Ministers Sir Anthony Seldon has predicted a less than prosperous trajectory for Boris Johnson's future in Number 10.

Seldon believes that although last week’s by-election losses may not spell the immediate end for Johnson's time as Prime Minister, history shows such a defeat is nearly impossible to bounce back from.

The Tories’ double by-election defeat last week has cast Johnson’s leadership further into doubt, particularly as the Lib Dems won the biggest UK by-election victory ever by overturning a 24,000-strong majority in Tiverton and Honiton. While the by-elections were not initially enough to catalyse a rebellion against Johnson, a number of Conservatives have privately expressed concern about heading into the next election with him as party leader. 

Seldon was previously an honorary historical advisor to Number 10 and is largely known for his political biographies of former Prime Ministers, including Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May

Seldon revealed to PoliticsHome that he has started work on Johnson’s biography, which he hopes will be published next spring. 

Having meticulously studied the careers of previous Prime Ministers, he recognises the patterns that lead to a change in leadership.

“History would suggest [Johnson] is not going to be long for this world in Number 10,” he told PoliticsHome

Although Seldon describes the swing against the Tories as “unprecedented”, he does not believe this alone will be the final nail in the coffin for Johnson. 

But combined with other factors such as spiralling inflation and the cost of living crisis, and political tensions within the Conservative party over the next few months, he thinks Johnson is more likely to fall in the autumn. 

“Historically, when people have said by-elections spell the end of a premiership, actually it doesn't straight away,” he said.

Supporters of Johnson, including Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries and Minister Without Portfolio Nigel Adams, have claimed by-elections have little significance in determining the success of a party or its leader. Leading pollsters, however, argue otherwise

On the day the by-election results were declared, Dorries tweeted: “History tells us how useless by-election results are as an indication of absolutely anything at all. 

“Margaret Thatcher would not have won three general elections and would have served for a very short time as PM if some of the claims I’ve heard today were based on a shred of substance.”

Seldon dismissed this claim, saying: “They are saying what they want Boris Johnson or their constituents to hear.

“History shows that insiders with an axe to grind for or against the leader will put their own spin on by-elections.”

In his biographies of previous Prime Ministers, Seldon has paid particular attention to the personality traits of leaders and how this led to their success and eventual downfall. 

He describes all Prime Ministers as “fighters”, but believes Johnson does possess a unique ability to ride out storms.

“Look at the way he responded [to the by-elections], he is untroubled. He has skills of resilience that I don’t think even Thatcher or Blair had to the same degree," Seldon explained.

“Maybe he is going to break the laws of history and bounce back from the vote in a way that others like John Major and Theresa May didn’t do.”

However, Seldon said these traits may also prove fatal for the PM’s political career. “The bravado and thick-skinnedness that gets [leaders] to the top will alienate them from their own party,” he added. 

In his forthcoming biography of Johnson, Seldon said there are a number of myths he is keen to dispel.

“We tend to get Prime Ministers wrong in two ways,” he said. “Firstly, we tend to think Prime Ministers are getting more ‘presidential’ but this is historically wrong: they have been presidential since the beginning, since Robert Walpole.

“Also, people think great Prime Ministers make history, but in fact historic Prime Ministers are made by history. 

“They are there at times of significant events, like world wars or pandemics, and that’s how we have to see Boris Johnson. Whatever you think about it, this will be a consequential premiership.”

Seldon said that going forward, the Prime Minister will need to give the electorate a “clear reason” to support him by driving forward a specific political agenda. 

“Boris Johnson has a very clear agenda about Ukraine,” he said. “If he is to recover a historically unprecedented restoration of authority, he would need to provide an equally convincing and compelling narrative for how Britain is going to cope with the cost of living crisis. 

“History would show that you have to have that clear sense of command of the narrative and communicate it in a way that people understand.”

According to YouGov polling, Johnson’s own seat may be in danger at the next general election and political experts have said the Conservative Party cannot assume any seat is safe.

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