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Johnson vs the Tory rebels: shame they can’t both lose
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Johnson vs the Tory rebels: shame they can’t both lose

Monday 10 January 2022

The Conservative libertarians are absurdly out of pace with the challenges of the 21st Century. But the PM is too shambolic to offer a coherent alternative


For decades, the prime minister has invested his considerable intellect in a form of politics that banishes ideas, complexity and deliberation, and fills the void with feelings, slogans and dopamine hits. 

Though he quotes The Iliad in private, his public life has been one of middle-brow showmanship, spectacle and performative chaos: less Homer, more Homer Simpson. Nothing better captures both the appeal and the limitations of this approach to political discourse than the ten-year-old image of the then Mayor of London, a Union Jack in each hand, celebrating Team GB’s first gold in the 2012 Olympics – but clownishly stuck on a zip-wire in an east London park.

So it is richly ironic that the great political entertainer should unwittingly find himself embroiled in – and, ex officio, presiding over – an increasingly intense ideological and philosophical debate over the very future of Conservatism, liberty and the limits of government. It is like Basil Brush being invited to chair a seminar on the Cartesian mind-body problem: potentially good telly, but not ideal if you want a cogent intellectual conclusion.

It should be emphasised that this is not just a debate about political ideas, principles, and abstractions: for the PM, the argument fizzes with political danger, imperilling his chances of surviving as Conservative leader. Yesterday, Johnson was subjected to a threefold attack; the hard core of the threat being that his dissenting fellow Tories will seek to topple him if he does not take a cold ideological shower and embrace the principles of neo-Thatcherism.

First, Lord Frost, the former Brexit negotiator who resigned from the Cabinet last month over Covid restrictions, green policies and rising taxation, told the Mail on Sunday that a significant course correction towards “free markets, free debate and low taxes” was essential, “if we’re going to get out of this little trough and win the election in a couple of years’ time”. 

Second, in a Telegraph article, Esther McVey, former leadership contender and founder of the Blue Collar Conservatism faction, demanded that the government abolish VAT on domestic energy and strip green levies from energy bills. “Cutting taxes means people have more of their own money in their pocket,” wrote McVey, “which is essential at a time like this”. 

Third, and most menacingly, Mark Harper, the former chief whip and now chairman of the so-called “Covid Recovery Group”, was quite explicit that, if the PM extended Plan B pandemic restrictions after 26 January and proceeded to perform badly in the May local elections, his position would be in jeopardy.

“It’s in his hands,” said Harper. “Conservative MPs will be asking themselves: am I going to hold my seat? They will look at polling and consider who is the person best able to help them keep their seats. Conservative MPs have asked themselves that question in the past and decided they need to do something about it. Prime ministers are on a performance-related contract.”

This is not a conspiracy, but an absolutely overt threat: do as we say, prime minister, or you’re toast. Leave aside for the moment the fact that, since the Tory Party’s rules for leadership elections were reformed by William Hague in 1998 to keep Ken Clarke at bay, it has been very difficult to dislodge an incumbent – especially one who sits in Number 10, atop a 79-seat majority. What, exactly, are the rebels seeking to achieve?

They see what the rest of us see: a looming cost-of-living crisis, rising inflation, higher energy bills, an exhausted nation desperate to escape the constraints imposed by the pandemic. And their prescription is simply to turn the clock back and restore the ideas that animated their party in the Eighties: the belief in the smaller state, tax cuts, individualism over collectivism, deregulation, indifference to environmental crisis, and an almost religious reverence for private sector solutions and the wisdom of “business”.

The religiosity of this political ethos, by the way, is not simply metaphorical. In his Commons speech on 30 November, opposing new Covid rules on face coverings and isolation periods, Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe and Harper’s closest political ally, framed the debate in explicitly spiritual and eschatological terms. 

“Are we to be empty vessels or mere automata—things to be managed, as if a problem?” Baker asked. “Or are we free spirits with, for want of a better term, a soul? We are free spirits with a soul—people who deserve the dignity of choice and the meaning in our lives that comes from taking responsibility. It is possible that meaning in our lives comes from little else. This is a fundamental choice between heading towards heaven and heading towards hell.”

Phew. I am not sure that the busy Thatcherite reformers of the Eighties considered their work in quite such theological terms (or at least, not very often). Their concern was overwhelmingly practical: to rescue the British economy, break the grip of unions, drive up property ownership and denationalise the utilities.

As so often, however, a set of political principles fit for its era has hardened with the passing of time into a creed of supposedly eternal verities. Clustering around three principal issues – tax cuts, the cost of the government’s net zero strategy, and the encroachments of Covid rules – the Tory rebels are now clearly branded as libertarian opponents of the government’s present direction of travel. And, more to the point, they are willing to flex their muscles and embarrass the PM – as they did on 14 December, when 99 Conservative MPs voted against his Plan B measures, forcing him to rely upon Labour support.

What is it about Johnsonism – if there is such a thing – that so inflames this wing of his party? It is a mistake to claim, as so many of the libertarian Right do, that the PM, post-Brexit, has somehow been “captured” by the Left; that he has forgotten his Conservative roots and fallen prey to the politics of (variously) Whitehall, the “deep state”, northern interest groups demanding cross-subsidy from the southern Tory heartlands, or his wife, Carrie, a supporter of animal rights and environmentalism.

The reality is otherwise, and reflects the path that has been taken by the populist Right around the world since the financial crash. In as much as there is a coherent Johnsonism, it represents an iteration of right-wing politics that has broken fundamentally not only with the Thatcherism of the Eighties but with the austerity politics of the Cameron-Osborne years. 

Reduced to its essentials, this populist conservatism is relaxed about government intervention – especially when it comes to grand infrastructural projects, the NHS, and (in theory at least) the big spending that any meaningful definition of “levelling up” will entail.

It is too easily forgotten that the first steps towards this new Conservative approach were taken by Theresa May. Disastrous in the role of prime minister, May nonetheless grasped that the challenges of the 21st Century were quite different to those that had confronted Britain’s first woman PM in 1979.

Her 2017 general election manifesto is now remembered, if at all, as a footnote to the Tory Party’s loss of its Commons majority. But it is, in fact, a bold and intelligent document; its most important contention being that “government can and should be a force for good – and its power should be put squarely at the service of this country’s working people.” 

No more, the manifesto declared, could the great social questions of the hour be delegated to the invisible hand of the market: “We do not believe in untrammelled free markets. We reject the cult of selfish individualism. We abhor social division, injustice, unfairness and inequality.”

Forgotten in the political mayhem that followed – the brief spasm of Corbyn-mania, the protracted row over Brexit that finally did for May in 2019 – this text represented a fundamental breach with the Thatcherite inheritance. What is so intriguing about Johnson is that, as radically different as he obviously is to his predecessor, he has not entirely ditched the new Conservatism she sought to develop, but, instead, painted it in bright populist colours, adding culture wars and a more aggressive stance on immigration to the mix.

This populism has its immediate roots in the 2016 Leave campaign: it combines the promise of a munificent nation-state with brazen nationalism, just as the referendum was won with the pledge of a hefty dividend for the NHS and much tighter immigration control once we left the European Union. On taxation: it is not so much that Johnson longs to increase the tax burden; more that its reduction is less of a burning priority for him than for his Thatcherite-libertarian opponents. 

And this has real consequences: witness, for instance, his testy exchange with Jacob Rees-Mogg at last Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting. Given the pressures of inflation and rising energy prices, Rees-Mogg asked the PM, was this really the right time to increase national insurance to fund social care and the NHS? Johnson’s response was one of visible irritation: to the effect that the Leader of the House was out of touch with electoral opinion and the impact of the NHS backlog. Lip up, Jacob.

Thus, little more than two years after Johnson’s election triumph, do we behold the fragmenting of the pro-Brexit Conservative coalition into two broad (and sometimes fluid) groupings: Thatcherite-libertarian versus populist-statist. The latter faction controls Number 10. But the former presents Johnson with huge structural difficulties in the Commons, and the risk that the so-called “reset” of his government in 2022 will be serially undermined by backbench rebellion.

The trouble with the libertarians is that they are time travellers, ancestor-worshippers spectacularly out of step with the needs of the hour. Parties succeed only when they respond to the questions posed by the context of the moment: in 1979, Thatcher grasped that inflation, union power, and the threat of Communism were the big issues. With no less acuity, Tony Blair understood in 1997 that the nation wanted greater attention to social justice without sacrificing economic competence.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with defending freedom: indeed, liberty remains the basis of any sustainable democratic order. But it is idle to deny (as the Tory rebels do) that the principal problems of the next decades will involve greater and smarter government involvement rather than a rolling back of the state. 

Climate emergency, the regulation of the digital revolution, the implications of increased human longevity, adaptation to automation and AI, greater resilience to future pandemics, the pathological inequalities of globalisation: market solutions may play a part in the response to this daunting array of challenges, but it is borderline bonkers to suggest that they can be addressed by tax cuts, deregulation, privatisation and business-worship alone. To claim otherwise is barely ideology. It is more like magical thinking.

This is why Rishi Sunak is such a contradictory figure in the present political landscape. On the one hand, he looks new and shiny: his mod tie, perfectly combed hair and adept social media branding a dramatic contrast with – and implicit reproach to – the shambolic, unkempt Prime Minister. On the other, Sunak is actually one of the most old-fashioned members of the Cabinet, a dyed in the wool fiscal Conservative who has been profoundly ill at ease handing out money during the pandemic, dismayed by his boss’s cavalier love of spending, and fortified by the picture of Nigel Lawson on his desk in Number 11.

This is catnip to many in the libertarian faction, who look to Sunak to drive out Johnson and restore the true Thatcherite faith. But, in the sequential world of politics, restorationism is always a disaster. It would make no more sense for a prime minister in 2022 to revive in full the political philosophy of the Iron Lady than it would have been logical for her, in 1979, to draw her inspiration from Neville Chamberlain. 

The fact that the Tory libertarians are wrong does not, of course, mean that Johnson is right. In the windy vagueness of “levelling up” one sees how terribly suited this prime minister is to the terrain of ideas, as he tries to work out how, precisely, he is going to make life appreciably better for the “Red Wall” voters who flocked to his standard in 2019 in time for the next election. The answer is that he can’t: not only does he lack the attention span and philosophical bandwidth to turn this ill-defined instinct into granular policy and life-enhancing reality; the chances of him doing so on any scale before 2024 are vanishingly small. 

Michael Gove’s long-postponed White Paper on this area of government strategy will doubtless put some flesh on the brittle skeleton. But – thanks in part to the resistance of Sunak’s Treasury – it will be, at best, a check-list of pork barrel spending projects, wrapped in infuriating generalities. Such a task would test the greatest of reforming governments; and the Johnson regime most certainly does not fall into that category.

Sometimes in politics there is a right answer, and a leader standing ready to implement it. Much more often, there is the ambiguity, compromise and inertia that predominates at the start of 2022. Observing the escalating confrontation between the PM and the Tory libertarians, one is reminded of Henry Kissinger’s famous remark about the Iraq-Iran war: “It’s a pity they both can’t lose”. Alas, in this battle between the incorrigible and the incompetent, it is the rest of us who will be the true losers.