Winter of Discontent: Has what’s to happen, all happened before?

Similar political problems to today, have seen previous governments suffer historic defeats, the question is whether the same will happen to Johnson? Source: Number 10 (via Flickr)

By Ella Lloyd | Political Editor

For the last 2 years, we’ve become used to hearing that the times we live in are ‘unprecedented’. However, is that the whole truth? 

Perhaps the current political situation in the UK isn’t all that unprecedented. In the autumn of 2021, there was significant political speculation that the UK was heading towards another winter of discontent, reminiscent of 1978-79.

The winter of ‘78- ‘79 became known as the winter of discontent, and saw James Callaghan’s Labour government defeated after a vote of no confidence led to a general election, ushering in the premiership of Margaret Thatcher. 

Indeed, for those who can remember the 1970s, many of the problems faced today serve as a reminder of those times.  

In December, inflation reached a 30-year high, the cost of living is rising, and a global energy crisis looms. The possibility of post-brexit shortages and scenes of cars queuing for petrol have all been signaled by political commentators,  as similar conditions to the 1970s, with suggestions that they could lead to the downfall of Johnson’s government as they did Callaghan’s.

However, Callaghan’s government of 1978 was not popular to begin with. They had been elected under the leadership of Harold Wilson in 1974, winning by 3 seats in the second general election of the year, after the first had produced a hung parliament and the UK’s first minority government. In marked contrast, Johnson won an 80 seat majority in 2019, which now stands at 77, after by elections and a crossing of the floor.

After the Conservatives capitalized on the government’s lack of control in the winter of discontent, they remained in power until 1997, when John Major was defeated in a landslide win for Tony Blair. Major’s government may also be comparable to Johnson’s current situation. Major won in 1992, with a record 14 million votes, but his premiership was marred by allegations of sleaze and scandal. His Culture Minister David Mellor had an affair go public in the press, as this government has also seen with Matt Hancock. The cash-for-questions scandal led Major to set up the Nolan Committee on Standards in Public Life, an action he has pointed to when some accused him of hypocrisy for his criticisms of Johnson’s sleaze allegations. Scandals over covid contracts and parties at Number 10 are perhaps reminiscent of the 90s.

Similar political problems then, have seen previous governments suffer historic defeats, the question is whether the same will happen to Johnson?

In the wake of Sue Gray’s redacted report being published, Johnson apologized to the commons and said ‘I get it and I will fix it’, promising to change the culture at Downing Street and to deliver on the promises he was elected on in 2019. Some MPs have suggested that if there is evidence of reform at Number 10, Johnson may hang onto power. 

One significant Conservative donor has described Johnson’s leadership as ‘past the point of no return’.

For a no confidence vote to be held, as it was in 1979, 54 Conservative MPs have to submit a letter to the 1922 committee. It’s currently received 15. If a no confidence vote is held, and Johnson survives, another cannot be held for a year. Therefore, many MPs who have lost confidence in Johnson may be waiting for the time it will have maximum impact. The current political forecast is that this may be after the Met Police’s investigation into lockdown parties is finished, and council elections in May. If the Met’s findings are damning, and council elections indicate a lack of public support for Johnson, more MPs may submit letters. 

If a no confidence vote is lost a leadership election will begin and perhaps a general election.

Then the questions will turn to Keir Starmer, and whether he can capitalize on his opponent’s problems as previous leaders of the opposition have? A recent poll suggests that the British Public believe the Labour leader would make a better Prime Minister than Johnson.

Only time will tell what the future holds for Johnson, the Conservative Party, and British politics, but what is observable, is that history often repeats itself, and what’s to happen, may have all happened before.

Ella Lloyd Politics
Follow @gairrhyddpol for all of the latest updates from the world of politics.

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