The Conservative Party once had a reputation for ruthlessness. The defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, the last Tory leader to win a proper majority (three times) loomed large in the Tory imagination. It offered a flattering contrast with Labour, who had a tendency to cling to leaders long after it was quite obvious they weren’t going to win.
Recent events have surely consigned that trope to the history books. Whatever one originally thought of Boris Johnson and the sort of conservatism he promised to build, this can’t be how anyone wanted things to go.
Just as the nation prepares to sail into the teeth of a brutal inflation spike which will wreak havoc on the cost of living, Johnson and his team have ended up stuck in a rolling series of self-inflicted crises. So consumed by firefighting has the Downing Street operation become that it is difficult for even committed supporters to tell you in any detail what this Government is actually for.
Yes, there is a hyper-active legislative agenda. But few of those Bills add up to anything really substantive, and several of the most high profile are simply woeful.
The Online Harms Bill is a confusing mess which threatens freedom of speech; the Bill of Rights Bill a bloated mass of inoperative clauses that looks like what you get when you’ve committed to a sweeping reform of human rights legislation but daren’t actually quit the ECHR.
And as Nadhim Zahawi settles in behind his new desk at the Treasury, he leaves behind him a Schools Bill which exploded on the launchpad. That the DfE almost managed to slip through legislation that would have all but unwound two decades of school freedom reforms – and were only stopped by the vigilance of the House of Lords – is of a piece with the decision to retreat from full-fat planning reform, the scaling back of infrastructure investment, and so much else.
Johnson, as was apocryphally said of Hannibal, knows how to win a majority but not how to use one. In January, I wrote of him that:
‘If it hopes to win, the government needs a leader who’s prepared to not merely accrue but actually spend political capital on getting things done; not just hoard it, dragon-like, before accidentally setting the whole lot on fire.’
In 2019, the Prime Minister had a mandate to attempt something truly transformative – to try and forge a centre-right programme which could stitch the disparate voters who backed him at the general election into an enduring coalition.
This project would doubtless have not been entirely to the liking of many traditional Conservatives, be they Thatcherite, One Nation, or Cameroon. But had he pulled it off, it would have put him down in history as one of the really consequential prime ministers.
Instead, the Tories now face the real prospect of the worst of all worlds: a return to the long-term taint of sleaze and failure, but without the comfort of almost 20 years of reforming government to show for it.
In a metaphor that might appeal to his classical sensibilities, the Prime Minister risks becoming like like the King of Kings in the Shelley poem – but without even the two trunkless legs of stone standing in a desert to mark his reign.
Bozymandias might have erected works for ye mighty to despair at; instead the lone and level sands stretch far away.
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