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Boris Johnson: the continental Conservative

Boris Johnson: the continental Conservative

The prime minister has surprised everyone by taking the Tories left rather than right after Brexit. His government’s big-state agenda has left Labour unmoored, Downing Street exposed, business wary and the PM himself increasingly vulnerable


There was a moment on Monday morning sitting in a chilly marquee on the dockside at the Port of Tyne as Boris Johnson meandered into a Peppa Pig digression, shuffled his papers, then sputtered and stalled in his speech to the CBI, when I thought: I know what’s gonna happen next. He’s simply going to stop and busk it. “Forget about the speech”, he’ll say, “here’s what I’ve come to tell you”. 

But he didn’t. He continued with that excruciating father-of-the-bride-at-the-wedding routine. Without his speech, he was lost for words. Unscripted, he had nothing to say to business: Daddy Pig was in a muddy puddle of his own making. 

And immediately after the speech, I was asked what I made of it. I thought it was typical. Charming and funny, insubstantial and shambolic. 

But, in the days since then, I’ve realised it’s seemed more significant than that. I can’t offer any armchair analysis of the prime minister’s apparently erratic state of mind. But I think it does say something about the unexpected mindset of Johnson’s Conservatives. 

I’m James Harding and in this week’s editor’s voicemail – (back, if not by popular demand, then at least an occasional nudge) – I want to talk about how wrong-footed we have all been by a Brexiteer Government that has turned left on leaving the EU.

Brexit, of course, was driven by the Conservative Right. For years, Eurosceptics dreamed of escaping the meddlesome bureaucrats and big government interventionists of the EU and freeing the UK to become a smaller state, lower tax, enterprise economy. London would become Singapore-on-Thames; the UK would be restored to mercantile greatness.

But, instead, Johnson’s government is championing a brand of economic conservatism that is very unconservative. 

Tax as a share of GDP is going up from 33.5 per cent to 36.2 per cent, the highest level since the 1950s; government spending is going up too, to the highest level since the 1970s; the government has sanctioned a 6.6 per cent rise in the minimum wage, setting expectations for wider pay hikes and stoking fears of sustained inflation; and far from scaling back the state to make way for the market, this government has ramped up the role of the state, appointing itself a market-maker in everything from social care insurance to medicinal cannabis, hydrogen energy to electric vehicles to freeports. 

The Brexiteers may have believed they could leave behind those cheese-eating European social democrats with their love of higher taxes, their restrictive labour markets, bigger safety nets and grands projets, but Johnson’s Conservatives now uncannily resemble the European centreleft. Not so much Singapore-on-Thames as Toulouse-on-the-Tyne. 

Tories, of course, insist that they remain instinctively small state, and they point out that things have changed. The explanation, they give, is Covid. The pandemic required unprecedented borrowing to fund furlough, vaccines, testing etc. and the recovery requires more spending still.

But it’s not the bug – it’s Boris. The reasons for the change of tack have nothing to do with the pandemic: they are social care, climate crisis and structural inequalities – AKA levelling up. These are his political choices. 

And for what it’s worth, I favour a lot of them. Remaking Britain – a step-change commitment in people and skills, the green drive to create new markets and lifestyles, a reworking of the economic geography and generational life chances, and big bets behind ideas and technologies that are globally competitive – all this is in step with the arguments that Tortoise has been making for a while about the radical changes needed to address the power gap in the UK. To my mind, the problem is that the government’s agenda is too timid, its execution too slapdash. It’s neither radical, nor methodical enough. 

But that’s not the point here. Whatever you think of it, Boris Johnson’s left turn at Brexit has left nearly everyone trying to find their feet. 

It’s left Labour in a muddle. There was a ThinkIn a few weeks ago, when a Labour MP started complaining about this Conservative government’s tax – borrow and spend. And so I asked him to elaborate: did he want more or less of it? He ducked. Meanwhile, Labour has opposed the national insurance rise to fund social care, but that it leaves it stuck in the mud – to reverse course, a Labour government would either have to cut health and social care spending by £12 billion or it would have to find £12billion in new taxes. 

It’s also left Johnson at odds with his party. The strains between Boris Johnson, between the munificent writer of cheques, and Rishi Sunak, his wannabe Thatcherite cashier, are spilling into the open. (One Tory MP described Sunak’s Budget as being like a hostage video). And if the prime minister watched the Blair and Brown documentary – and if he hasn’t, he should, as it’s the best piece of film-making about British politics that I can remember – well if he watched it, he’ll feel a strange kinship with Tony Blair. Because Blair, for a time, was welcomed by the country but only tolerated, and often rather largely disliked, by his party, who then couldn’t wait to get rid of him when he stopped looking like a winner.

The left turn has also left a political opening on the Conservative Right. In the UK, there is not today a political party advocating lower taxes and smaller government. Not that the UK is the only western country to have rediscovered an appetite for big government. It’s true in the US, of course, as well as unlikely places in Europe, such as the Netherlands. But sooner or later, someone is going to step into that gap: left on the right. 

The left turn at the exit has also left Downing Street exposed on delivery. Because the more you spend, the more exposed you are to waste, incompetence and corruption – viz PPE contracts, Dido Harding’s Test and Trace programme, Bounce Back Loans fraud. And so far, the efforts to bring some discipline to Downing Street in the form of Dan Rosenfeld, the prime minister’s chief of staff, well they’re not working. Because execution ultimately sits with the PM. And, as a former cabinet minister once told me, the difference between Dave and Boris – between Cameron and Johnson – is that Dave wanted his ministers to have grip, but wasn’t so good on vision; Boris has plenty of vision, but is not interested in grip.

And finally to get back to where we started, it’s left business feeling that this Conservative prime minister – well, he doesn’t get business. Many CEOs and entrepreneurs, who are natural Tory allies, think that the prime minister’s economic mantra – “high skills, high wages, high productivity” – was hatched in the Department of Wishful Thinking. When business calls for lowers taxes and less red tape, they’re not sure these days who to turn to. Last year, Boris Johnson cancelled on the CBI. This year, he looked like he didn’t take it seriously: “Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me,” he said as he floundered in his speech; but the fact is that he lost is place in the paperwork, because he’d tried to skip ahead – he looked like, and he was, in a hurry to get out of there. 

And, of course, the Peppa Pig paragraph will end up being more memorable than any 10 point plan on a decarbonised economy. (To be fair, I’m more guilty than most for thinking that cute moments with your kids will make for warm, funny anecdotes at work. And note to self: they don’t.) But there was a moment on the Tyne, just after the speech in Johnson’s Q&A, when I thought he said something that really was worth remembering. It went almost entirely unreported. It was his passing reference to a conversation the previous night with the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who had been worrying aloud about the low levels, by OECD standards, of UK private investment that follows on public investment in research and development. It wasn’t funny or embarrassing, or obviously memorable. But it was a signal in the noise: watch out for the coming big push on incentives for private sector investment in science and tech. It’s a signal of where our Continental Conservatives are driving the big government engine next.

Thanks for listening, have a very good weekend.