21 January 2022

Whoever succeeds Johnson will face the same electoral conundrum

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Boris Johnson’s struggle for political life is nothing if not a gripping human drama. For better and for worse, the personality of the Prime Minister has always been at the very core of his political offer.

A contest to succeed him, whenever it comes, therefore poses a serious challenge to the Conservatives: can they disentangle the very real achievements of their current leader from the man himself?

Johnson’s genius for political salesmanship cuts at least two ways. Most obviously, he smashed the ‘Red Wall’ by persuading millions of voters who had not voted Tory since the 1980s (if ever) to give the party a shot. He has now redrawn, perhaps permanently, the electoral map; Tony Blair’s old constituency now sports a Conservative MP.

But he achieved this by doing something equally difficult: selling the party itself on a form of conservatism that would appeal to those seats. Whether moving away from free-market orthodoxies or putting a border down the Irish Sea, the Prime Minister has cheerfully perpetrated the sort of heresies he so energetically attacked Theresa May over – and the party has, by and large, put up with it.

However, neither of these achievements has yet really bedded in. Perhaps distracted by two years of fighting the pandemic, Johnson has not developed slogans such as ‘levelling up’ into an intellectually coherent conservatism. On the ground, MPs and activists in newly won seats are frustrated by the lack of practical progress in showing that a Conservative government will deliver for their area.

And in the parliamentary Conservative Party, there is nothing resembling the sort of ideological praetorian guard who formed around Margaret Thatcher, and to a lesser extent David Cameron, prepared to carry the torch (or tree) once the great leader has departed.

Like Alexander the Great, therefore, Boris risks seeing his political legacy fall apart the moment he isn’t there to hold it together. A leadership contest is necessarily introspective: power rests with the MPs and then a few hundred thousand activists in the country. Votaries of the true Thatcherite religion, or those such as David Gauke who feel the party has ‘lost its way’, will be overrepresented compared to their strength in the country at large.

Both have important contributions to make, given that the Johnson programme is, to put it very mildly, not perfect. An ambitious Conservative Party should be aiming to reach out to well-to-do voters who were alienated in the course of delivering Brexit, and be much more worried than it seems about its slow death in London.

Likewise, beneath the sometimes patronising caricatures of the party’s new voters occasionally drawn by London-based commentators, the foundations of its new coalition in ‘Barratt Box Britain’ is precisely that these are places where it is still much easier to own a home and start a family on a normal household income – precisely the offer that delivered such huge Conservative breakthroughs in the Eighties.

Nonetheless, as Robin Harris once put it, the party is ultimately ‘an institution with a purpose, not an organism with a soul’. And that purpose is gaining, holding, and ideally (but sadly, not necessarily) wielding power.

Cameroon nostalgists should therefore remember that his modernising project, on its best day, delivered an overall majority of less than 20 – and did that only by striking the very Faustian pact which saw it overthrown a year later. The post-Thatcherites who ran the party before Cameron did not achieve even that.

Johnson won, and won big, by forging a new coalition. If his successor wishes to actually win a general election, they will need to maintain it. Which poses an even more fundamental question: can it be done?

The exigencies of the pandemic largely suspended normal politics. Rishi Sunak’s decision to do ‘whatever it takes’ meant that the Government was, for a time, able to perform the ultimate winning routine: doling out vast wads of public cash without asking the public to pay for it.

Now the bills are coming due, and the tensions in the new Tory coalition are becoming more and more apparent. At the most recent party conference Johnson tried to assuage concerns that lavishing attention on the Red Wall meant neglecting Stoke Poges, but the problems run deeper than that.

Appeasing elderly voters and homeowners means heaping new taxes on aspirational working-age people. Defending the existing character of leafy shires and suburbs has meant largely abandoning planning reform. There is a growing recognition that the NHS is unsustainable, but strong political pressure to turn social care into a second financial black hole.

Johnson’s coalition may, therefore, prove to be a soap bubble. Not because it was a coalition of disparate interests held together by Brexit – that problem at least could be ameliorated if politics continues to shift on to a cultural axis. But because in practice, ‘Johnsonism’ has rapidly devolved into a policy of buying off vested interests at the expense of the long-term prosperity of the nation and, for that reason, the Conservative vote.

That is the challenge that faces Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, or whoever wins the crown. They need not only to defend and maintain the Prime Minister’s achievements, but do what he has so far proven incapable of doing – laying coherent foundations for long-term success.

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Henry Hill is News Editor of ConservativeHome.

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