When Boris Johnson last addressed a Conservative party conference in person two years ago, he had only been prime minister for 70 days. When, on that occasion in Manchester, he celebrated “the hospitals that are finally getting the investment to match the devotion of the staff,” he could not, in his worst imaginings, have predicted the appalling pressures to which the NHS would be subjected only six months later – by a pathogen that has, to date, ended more than 137,000 lives in the UK and came perilously close to claiming his own.
As he praised “schools where standards of reading are rising through the use of synthetic phonics,” he could hardly have guessed that, for much of 2020, it would be hard-stretched parents who were struggling to teach their children at home, with or – all too often – without access to online learning.
In October 2019, Johnson also spoke of “police colleges where idealistic young men and women are enrolling in large numbers to fight crime across the country”. Again, he could scarcely have foreseen that his next real-life party conference would be grimly overshadowed by a crisis of trust in the police service and by the evidence – horribly epitomised by the murder of Sarah Everard – that it is bedevilled by systemic misogyny.
And, in that same speech, the PM hailed his mother, Charlotte Johnson Wahl, as “the supreme authority in my family” – a remarkable person indeed, whose significance in his life it is hard to exaggerate and who died three weeks ago today.
So much else has changed in his own circumstances since his last performance in Manchester: he has been divorced from his second wife, remarried, and fathered a son (with another child on the way) – not to mention his own brush with the Grim Reaper. In the political sphere, he has led the UK out of the European Union (albeit in a fashion that means fractious negotiations will continue for years, if not decades); he and Chancellor Rishi Sunak have spent £407 billion on Covid rescue measures; he has lost his chief adviser in a brutal and public sundering; and he has secured his party its first thumping general election victory since 1987.
For that, the party remains solidly grateful to Johnson: for nine years in office, it wrestled with the unrelenting drama of hung parliaments, or – between 2015 and 2017 – the limitations of a small Commons majority. In spite of this, the collective Tory euphoria of 12 December 2019 has long faded, and yielded place to a nervousness that he will have to address foursquare in his speech on Wednesday.
Though David Cameron’s modernisers did their best to make the Tory Party seem compassionate and socially liberal, the default setting for Conservatives has long been, in Maurice Saatchi’s famous formulation, “cruel but competent”. It follows that, when this competence is called into question, they get uneasy.
In the words of one of Johnson’s longtime ministerial lieutenants: “The party can forgive Boris the fuck-ups with test-and-trace and care homes. It was a pandemic, after all. But this – well, this is different. It’s much harder to explain away.”
For “this,” read the convergence of rising energy prices, the prospect of higher inflation, the tail-backs at petrol stations, the shortages in the shops. Energy, food, fuel: a sour cocktail of scarcities that has already become known in Whitehall as the “EFFing crisis”.
On the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show yesterday, the PM was at pains to emphasise that all this short-term misery would be soothed by rising wages. He is right that, according to the latest data released by the Office for National Statistics, “The rate of annual pay growth for total pay was 8.3% and regular pay was 6.8% in May to July 2021.”
But the ONS itself warns against reading too much into these headline figures, given the low base (during the pandemic) against which these annual increases were measured, and the collapse in many sectors of low-paid work since Covid struck (the so-called “compositional effect” which gives the impression of rising wages only because of a proportionate loss of poorly paid jobs).
In any case, what concerns Tories more than such wonkish distinctions is the prospect of a standard of living crisis, as the 1.25 per cent increase in National Insurance announced last month to pay for social care takes effect, compounded by rising prices, and then, in response to inflation, by higher interest rates – which will translate into increased mortgage premiums.
It is a political misfortune, too, that the day of Johnson’s speech coincides with the end of the £20 uplift to Universal Credit. Labour, of course, is protesting noisily about this cut. But so too is Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader and hardly a man of the left. At the very least, IDS told Sky’s Trevor Phillips yesterday, the government should “not do it now,” as the country heads into the privations of winter.
What also troubles the Tory rank-and-file is the impression that Johnson’s government has lost sight of the party’s core belief in low taxes. In his Budget in March, Sunak announced a six-percentage-point hike in corporation tax from 19 to 25 per cent. The NIC and dividend tax increases will come into effect in April, while the freezing of thresholds and allowances until 2026 will, in practice, add to the tax burden.
When Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee, said yesterday that the Tories’ “credible reputation” as a low-tax party was in peril, he expressed a fast metastasising anxiety. Nor was it lost on the party faithful in Manchester that the PM so conspicuously declined to rule out further tax hikes when questioned by Marr, or that he declared himself opposed only to “unnecessary tax rises” (my italics).
Johnson has long been described as a “conference darling” and it is true that his mere presence – the brio, the shtick, the unquenchable optimism – tends to cheer up Tory activists. But they do not really understand him: which is to say, they have mistaken the nature of his true allegiances.
His most profound loyalty, of course, is to himself, his own interests and his ambitions to be “world king”. Beyond that, however, it is very important to grasp that what he truly stands for is not any recognisable form of pre-existing Toryism – the “One Nation” variety or old school Thatcherism – but the cluster of ideas, instincts and contemporary neuroses encapsulated in the word “Brexit”.
In his weekend interviews, the PM returned, again and again, to one point above all others: namely, that the short-term visas being issued to EU lorry drivers and farm workers would not, under any circumstances, translate into “uncontrolled immigration”. None of his interviewers had suggested that a return to freedom of movement was in prospect. But it was not them that he was addressing.
I am not sure that his own party yet realises quite what it voted for when it chose Johnson as its leader in July 2019. Yet – to be fair – he spelt it out yesterday to Marr. His offer, he said, remained the offer he had made in the Brexit referendum in 2016 and then in the last general election: “The end of a broken model of the UK economy that relied on low wages and low skill.”
What he did not say, but is the heart of the matter, is that this “broken model,” in his eyes, is as much associated with Cameron and George Osborne as it is with recent Labour governments.
The Johnson vision – more of a hazy wish list than a meticulous blueprint – is for strict border control, a rejection of the old dependency on imported cheap labour, huge investment in skills, and decent wages. This is light years distant from the rugged individualism of the Thatcher era or the austerity of the Cameron-Osborne years. It suits him to refer to all this as “levelling up” or “building back better”. In truth, it is Brexitism, pure and simple, and it is the closest Johnson gets to a personal creed.
Let me be clear: I have no reason at all to believe that he is capable of implementing this plan (if it deserves to be called that). Nothing in his conduct during the worst of the pandemic suggested any talent for the hard yards of government, the nuance of complex strategies, or the detail of policy. Nevertheless, it is worth knowing what any prime minister is actually trying to sell, even if it is snake oil.
Which brings us to the question that is really troubling many Tories. Nobody can doubt Johnson’s genius as a winner. But is he, in fact, when all is said and done, up to the job? Is the present crisis the first stirring of a greater and more brutal reckoning in which reality will finally bite and the Boris bubble burst?
Their anxieties find a parallel outside the party in a more general political narrative that is becoming increasingly commonplace. To simplify: after the populist convulsions of 2016 and beyond, the culture wars, the nationalist surge, and the horrors of the pandemic, normal service (whatever that means) is allegedly being resumed. After a period of madness – so the argument runs – politics is returning to its correct preoccupations: the economy, prosperity, the pound in your pocket. Come in, Mr Johnson, your time is up.
It is self-evidently the case that the government faces huge economic questions in the years ahead as it struggles with the self-harm of Brexit and the scarring of Covid. But it is a big non sequitur to conclude that these challenges will neatly end the era in which identity, culture and belonging mattered as much as they have, and restore politics to its supposedly proper status as a branch of economics.
This is not because economic pressures do not matter – who could make such an absurd claim? – but because they are more intimately entangled than ever with questions of culture, self-perception and place. Why does Johnson make so much of immigration? Because he knows that the “red wall” voters who elected Tory MPs on a probationary basis in 2019 make no distinction between economic and cultural precariousness.
The more fearful you are about your identity as an employee (or one of almost a million people who were still furloughed when the scheme ended last week), the more fearful you become about your place in the world and the perceived threats to it. This insight is at the heart of Johnson’s politics.
Which is why he and his colleagues are waging their culture war so implacably at this conference. Yesterday, the party chair, Oliver Dowden, claimed that Labour “has got woke running through it like a stick of Brighton rock”, and took aim at those who argue that Britain is “dominated by privilege and oppression” and “should view its values and history with shame”. Meanwhile, his successor as culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, told the Sun on Sunday that she “could almost hear the almond latte cups hitting the floor at the BBC when I got this job.”
If the so-called Tory “war on woke” strikes you as crude and a little infantile, you have my full sympathy. Unfortunately, I suspect it is also shrewd politics.
Will hordes of voters flock to the polling stations specifically to defend statues, or because they resent being asked for their pronouns, or because they have personally been “cancelled”? It seems highly unlikely. But what may inform their electoral choices is something more visceral; a sense they have acquired, incrementally and by osmosis, that the “liberal London elite” and its campus outposts are still trying to tell the rest of the country what to think, say and believe.
Again, this keeps the flame of Brexitism alive. And, while it is mostly nonsense, it is sufficiently true to keep the story in the headlines. Most people, for example, do not have a strong view on gender ideology, or possibly even know of its existence. But they may wonder why Keir Starmer and Ed Davey seem so ready to take issue with those who insist on the reality of biological sex; and why today’s left has apparently crossed the line from seeking decency and progress to a fixation with purity tests and a readiness to condemn those who fail to pass them.
What Johnson grasps better than any politician of our times is that modern politics is not chess or a branch of logic. It does not follow, as perhaps it once did, that when a government reaches a critical mass of empirically measurable difficulties, it will collapse.
In the post-crash, post-Brexit, post-digital revolution world, politics, more than ever, is about demons and angels, not pie charts and data. It is, frankly, a hot mess – at the heart of which lies a terrible question about the very capacity of the nation-state, as presently configured, to match the capricious intensity of the digital world.
To respond to these circumstances as Johnson has – with the shallow populism of the entertainer – is a shabby business. It replaces statesmanship with vaudeville, spraying phoney optimism onto a spirit of narrow-minded nativism.
Yet, so far, it has worked. That does not mean it will do so indefinitely. But it would be a grave mistake not to acknowledge the core political reality of this conference: that Johnson, unlike millions of voters, and for all his errors, still has plenty of fuel left in the tank.
Photograph by Ben Stansall / AFP