Boris Johnson may like to present his government as a new one, but it’s been in power for over a decade. Over the past few weeks, its age has started to show
One of Boris Johnson’s great achievements after his General Election victory exactly two years ago on 12 December 2019 was to present himself as the leader of a new government.
But, of course, it wasn’t. He wasn’t. The Conservatives have now been in power for nearly 11 years. And if Johnson’s political troubles for the past few weeks – the Christmas party scandal, the Owen Paterson fiasco, the Afghanistan withdrawal humiliation, the Peppa Pig digression, the Downing Street refurbishment – if all of those add up to anything, it’s this: they’ve revealed what we always knew, this is not a new government, it’s an old one.
Gordon Brown tried to brand himself the leader of a new government when he took over from Tony Blair in 2007. And, for a while, he succeeded. For the first six months or so, the Westminster gang overwhelmingly bought into the story that seriousness had replaced spin. Or, as Downing Street liked to put it at the time: not flash, just Gordon. But no politician can escape the reality of time. After 13 years of Labour government, the Conservatives campaigned in the May 2010 General election with a simple message: “Vote for Change”. David Cameron replaced Brown and a decade of Tory prime ministers had begun.
I’m James Harding and in this week’s Editor’s Voicemail I want to talk about time catching up with the Conservatives.
The Christmas Party scandal is going to do lasting damage to Johnson. It’s undermining government authority when Covid’s spiking and the instructions are confusing. It plays to “Tory toff” suspicions – i.e. one rule for us, another for them. And like Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle and Chris Huhne passing his points for speeding, it’s a rich seam for comedians – it turns the powerful into a joke. And if corruption and waste drain public confidence in the competence of government, this eats away at the prime minister’s unique asset: his likeability. As my colleague Matt d’Ancona astutely observed, we seem to have got used to lying in politics – but hypocrisy we can’t stand.
But what this past week has reminded me is that this government is carrying around a lot of personal history. This is not like 1999, two years after Labour took office; it’s much more like 2008, 11 years after they came to power. Back then, government ministers were tired and divided; after more than a decade of political pitched battles and personal feuds behind closed doors, New Labour had got old and given all the wear and tear, it was, like a rugby player’s knee, injury prone.
The divisions inside the Conservative party today, they too have grown over time. Brexit, of course, did not unify the Conservatives; and remember, at least 40 per cent of Tory MPs now in Parliament voted Remain. Likewise, as the old saying goes in the House of Commons, the Opposition may be in front of you, but your enemies are behind you. And the number of former ministers who are now on the backbenches, stripped of ministerial salary, staff and, in many cases, car and driver, that number is now up to 98 – they include the likes of Mark Harper, the overlooked former Chief Whip, who this week sounded off against the government in the House of Commons. And then, as Tom Fleming at the UK in a Changing Europe calculated, there are the never ministers: 66 Conservative MPs who must, by now, surely have given up any hope of advancement to the front benches. They have been in parliament for five, seven, ten years or more, and they’ve never got a ministerial job. So taken together, the “former ministers” and the “never ministers”, well they number 164 MPs, nearly half the Conservatives in the Commons. And given that it only takes a rebellion of 40 Conservative MPs to annul Johnson’s majority in the house, this is going to be a less confident government from here.
The divisions are, arguably, more personal in Cabinet than the House of Commons. Boris and Sunak are hardly Butch and Sundance; the PM looking more and more like a big-state big spender and the chancellor trying tout his Thatcherite credentials, placing stories in the papers about his plans for tax cuts and a smaller state. Meanwhile, Matt d’Ancona’s audio essay of a few weeks back, the one that was called 11 days in August, well it’s a piece of reporting on the escape from Kabul that, with each passing day, has proved to be more revealing about government in Whitehall. It’s shown us the division between the ex-officers and the diplomats in the Tory ranks; between the likes of defence secretary Ben Wallace and co, and Dominic Raab, the deputy prime minister, previously foreign secretary. The military MPs think the Raab types are slapdash; the dislike is mutual. The internationalists think the old soldiers are blunt and self-regarding.
And then at the centre of all of this is the big house: Number 10 Downing Street. Over more than a decade, it has eaten its way through so many talented staffers, aides and officials and few, if any, want to go back. You only had to witness Allegra Stratton making her pained and tearful resignation statement to understand why. (And one aside here: she didn’t, in that statement, do what as a journalist, she would have known was needed, namely address the question of the party itself. But let’s come back to that another day, as it’s a whole other set of questions about the personal Chinese walls, professional values and ethical compromises that exist for the people running Downing Street comms who have, so often, just stepped out of the newsrooms now reporting on them.)
Of course, time has played tricks on all of us these past couple of years. Maybe it’s my age, maybe the pandemic and maybe all those Zooms, anyway, it’s maybe just the combination of all three, but whatever it is, time, it seems, has blurred. And so it’s strange to think that just three months ago I was in Manchester for the Conservative Party Conference and Boris Johnson reigned supreme, unchallenged really by the Labour leader, or by any stalking horse inside his own party or, in fact, by any Ukip-style insurgent on the right. In a matter of weeks since then, his government suddenly seems much more precarious. But then it’s older, more weary and scarred than it looks. It’s got years on the clock.