13 April 2022

After 12 years in power, this Tory government is starting to show its age

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It’s strange to recall that as recently as November, this Government looked as though it would comfortably win the next general election. Victory in 2023 or 2024 would (if we include the Coalition) see this period of ‘Tory rule’ match or exceed the 18 years achieved under Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

Now, there is an increasing sense that we might have skipped straight to the terminal decadence of the late Major era. From the moment Boris Johnson gave the nod to the woefully misjudged bid to change the parliamentary rules for Owen Paterson’s benefit, it’s as if he broke the first seal on his political apocalypse.

The scandals are coming thicker and faster – an MP convicted for sexual assault of a minor and a row over the Chancellor’s tax status in the last week alone – and they’re landing harder than they used to.

Set against Imran Khan or the war in Ukraine, ‘partygate’ looks trivial. This sense is not helped by the Opposition’s need to inflate it to absurd proportions. Tory turncoat Christian Wakeford’s claim that the UK’s Nato allies will be unable to take the Prime Minister seriously following a fixed-penalty notice is particularly ridiculous.

There is a scandal here, but at its core it is that Johnson and his ministers had drawn up and set in law a set of restrictions so byzantine that they could not themselves tell when they were breaking them, and which compassed behaviour they clearly thought to be safe and proportionate.

Step back, and it also includes the woeful extent to which enforcement of this opaque thicket of regulations varied depending on the inclinations of the local police. If the Prime Minister only ends up getting fined a few hundred pounds, it will sit uncomfortably next to stories of ordinary citizens being hit for far more.

Yet just as the political damage to Rishi Sunak is real no matter how good the case for non-dom status actually is, so too has ‘partygate’ done serious damage to Johnson. Both his and his party’s standing with the public is well down on a few months ago, and shows little sign of recovery.

He has been fortunate in that the drawn-out nature of the investigation has prevented the sort of ‘big bang’ moment which might have pushed his reluctant MPs over the top.

But backbenchers should not make the mistake of conflating the fact that he hasn’t (yet) had to resign with the idea that he has somehow got away with it. Just because they decide to keep him now doesn’t mean the voters will decide to do so at the next election.

Johnson has also been fortunate in that his fine has come at the very moment when the Chancellor, until last week the de facto Conservative dauphin, has just politically imploded. With no obvious successor, a leadership contest risks turning into a Pandora’s Box. Many MPs will be reluctant to invite the disruption and division for so uncertain an outcome.

Yet whilst this may be good news for the Prime Minister, it is a dire forecast for those of us whose interest in the Tories amounts to more than them simply being in office.

A weakened Johnson is even less likely to embark on anything brave or radical in the year or two he has before the next election, and even more likely to appoint an under-powered Cabinet in order to try and prevent a viable challenger arising from it.

So far, so Major. But Sir John at least had the excuse of a narrow majority (despite the largest popular vote in British history) which time eventually wore down to no majority at all. Johnson is drifting almost as badly despite lead in the Commons of almost 80 seats.

There is perhaps no greater symptom that a party has grown complacent in power than the suggestion that it would be good for it to lose office for a bit. Ministers in the dying days of the Major government exhibited this sort of fin de siècle brain rot; suffice to say they did not see Tony Blair coming.

But it is difficult to see how many more times the Conservatives can pull off this renewal-in-office trick of theirs. The remarkable thing about Johnson’s Government after 2019 was that for a while it genuinely felt like a new one, rather than the latest iteration of a Tory regime which had been in place for a decade.

Yet now, directionless and dogged by scandal, it feels every one of those 12 years. As though Johnson had glimpsed the picture the Tories kept hidden in their attic, his administration’s mortality is suddenly writ upon its face.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.