All the candidates will favour higher ‘defence’ spending while at the same time they continue to squeeze public spending

One of Boris Johnson’s first (widely publicised) acts after resigning as Conservative Party leader was to call Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky. The message was straightforward: Johnson had been perhaps the greatest supporter of Zelensky since Russia’s invasion began in February and the Ukrainian leader regarded his being forced from office as a mistake. This was a reiteration of Zelensky’s statement after Johnson survived the no confidence vote last month: he regards Johnson as a key ally, rejecting any idea of peace talks with Russia and arguing at international summits for more weaponry and funds to be sent to Ukraine.

Johnson and his allies have repeatedly used the war in Ukraine in recent months to shore up his now vanished support within the Tory party. He referred to it in his speech outside Downing Street on Thursday. We are repeatedly told that we are ‘at war’ which is untrue. We have also been told that, despite the myriad failings of Johnson himself, there could be no challenge to his leadership because there was ‘war in Europe’. In fact British prime ministers have been removed during much greater wars in Europe: Asquith in 1916, Chamberlain in 1940. Margaret Thatcher was removed as the first Gulf War was about to begin in 1990.

Support for wars and banging the patriotic drum are second nature to Johnson. His unpopularity became so great and his levels of deceit and corruption so obvious however that they no longer provided a refuge for him. It would be foolish, however, to entertain the idea that Johnson’s successor will adopt any fundamentally different approach. Three of the likely candidates have backgrounds in the armed forces, foreign secretary Liz Truss has repeatedly channeled the image of Thatcher on a tank to burnish her belligerent credentials, and there is no one standing who will remotely challenge the agenda of support for war, sanctions on Russia, a much greater role for NATO, and more military spending.

Let’s not forget as well that, in a shameful compromise, Johnson has been allowed to stay on as prime minister for maybe three months, during which time he retains access to the nuclear codes and can make many decisions about military deployment and spending. A prime minister who has been accused of lying, deception, and corruption should not have been allowed to stay a single day more.

The unedifying spectacle about to unfold as the Tories choose Johnson’s successor will feature pro war and pro NATO sentiments quite centrally. All the candidates will favour higher ‘defence’ spending (already at the highest in Europe), while at the same time they continue to squeeze public spending and demand tax cuts for the rich and business. They will all defend attacks on refugees from wars. It is certainly possible that the new Tory leader will be even more to the right than Johnson.

There is little effective opposition to this narrative. Labour’s opposition has increasingly focused on Johnson’s incompetence and lack of decency rather than policy differences, which just leaves Starmer disarmed if someone more competent wins. He has also played up his patriotic and pro war credentials, going so far as to forbid Labour MPs to criticise NATO. Opposition to war, to the militarisation of Europe, to increased defence spending, to the growing threat of nuclear conflict, is going to have to come from the anti-war movement.

09 Jul 2022 by Lindsey German

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