Boris Johnson’s premiership was a massive wasted opportunity. Having secured an historic majority at the 2019 general election, he proved incapable either of applying himself to the hard detail work of structural reform or even of retaining the staffers who might have carried that torch for him.
Yet the new Tory coalition he stitched together at the last election remains one of his real achievements. However, as Liz Truss prepares to take office, its future is in doubt. Important new research from Public First, commissioned by the Centre for Policy Studies, finds that the key planks of the Johnson coalition are creaking dangerously.
It is not surprising that voters should not be feeling enamoured of the outgoing, scandal-ridden administration. But there has for some time been a deeper worry that the Tories simply aren’t delivering on the promises they made in 2019. A common question from MPs in Red Wall constituencies is simply: what am I supposed to put on my leaflets?
There are mitigating factors, of course: first the pandemic, and latterly the fallout from the Ukraine war. And voters have indeed shown the Government remarkable latitude in their judgement of how it has handled events. But a government cannot win re-election on excuses.
Worse, there is now a danger that the Tories might, in their response to the current crisis, be seen by those voters who took a chance on them in 2019 as reverting to type. The energy crisis, inflation, and public sector pay demands are going to put huge pressure on departmental budgets, whilst Truss has made substantial tax cuts for businesses the centrepiece of her pitch to Conservative members.
In the event that the new government’s response to the cost of living crisis is viewed as mean or inadequate, this risks giving a really toxic impression of where the party’s priorities really lie – even more so if Truss fails to make good on her promises to deliver projects such as Northern Powerhouse Rail.
Forging a lasting coalition out of the voters Johnson rallied to his standard in 2019 should not, according to ‘The New Majority’ report, be an impossible task. Polling and focus groups suggest that measures targeted at the working-class voters most in need of targeted action are unlikely to alienate the Tories’ traditional middle-class supporters.
But the bigger question is whether the Party currently wants to embark on that sort of transformational project.
Had he got his ten years, Johnson might have managed to bed in the changes he kicked off in 2019. Another election victory would have deepened the ranks of MPs returned to Parliament on his vision for a higher-spending Toryism; there would have been a decade in which those MPs, and CCHQ, could have tried to up recruitment in newly won seats to change the profile of the national membership.
Most importantly, a leadership contest staged in the late 2020s, or even the early 2030s, in the most glorious and triumphant Johnsonian scenarios, would have seen MPs from the 2019 intake in a position to compete – an important step towards consummating the Conservatives’ new relationship with the North, which probably can’t be done by even the most well-meaning leader with a London seat.
Instead, he burned out, and instead of passing the torch to his heirs in the Red Wall, it will be picked up by people much more in tune with the Tories’ traditional post-1979 attitudes. There may be much wisdom in the remedies to Britain’s ills suggested by this school, but the risk of their misjudging the changing nature of the party’s base is very real.
In fact, we could end up with the worst of all worlds, with the Tory leadership failing to deliver for voters who took a chance on the party in 2019 whilst alienating the more liberal sections of its base with noisy (but usually empty) posturing about culture-war issues that no section of its coalition actually cares about very much.
Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.
CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.