15 May 2023

Why has Boris become the standard-bearer of the Tory right?


On March 9, 1974, a Japanese bookseller brought an end to a war which had, as far as the rest of the world was concerned, been over for almost three decades already. Major Yoshimi Taniguchi had travelled to the Philippines at the behest of his Emperor because it seemed to be the only way Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda could be persuaded that the war was actually over.

Who knows if, in the 2050s, we’ll be treated to an elderly Boris Johnson despatching a courtier to order what remains of the Conservative Democratic Organisation (CDO) to lay down their lanyards. But there has from the start been more than a little of the Teikoku Rikugun about the enterprise – and its first conference, held on Saturday, has done nothing to dispel that impression.

In theory, the CDO is what it says on the tin: a high-minded campaign for more internal democracy in the Conservative Party. But the party already has one of those, and the venerable Campaign for Conservative Democracy has two things its upstart rival has not: a track record of actually delivering change (e.g. getting the Tories to stand in Northern Ireland) and a coherent, well-informed analysis of what the party’s democratic deficit actually is.

As John Strafford points out, the hallowed vote for the leader was never more than a sop to the membership, used as cover whilst William Hague dismantled all the levers by which the grassroots had exercised power in the party’s affairs.

It was in 1998 that CCHQ took control of candidate selections, depriving local associations of the autonomy which once justified the description of the Conservative Party as an alliance of social clubs that dabbled in politics. It also took over running the annual party conference, resulting in both the abolition of voting on motions and the relocation from affordable seaside locations to big, expensive, vendor-friendly cities.

What these things have in common is that they reconcile a powerful role for grassroots activists with the constitutional imperative that MPs are representatives, not delegates, and thus that the parliamentary party must ultimately govern itself.

The CDO does not recognise this. Its stated mission is ‘retaining and reinforcing the Party Membership’s democratic right to choose the Party Leader’, and in that context ‘reinforcing’ means trying to remove MPs’ ability to remove a leader in whom they have no confidence.

It’s hard to overstate how deranged this is. In opposition, it would be a damaging indulgence, but in government it would be a scandal. It is not for any external faction to usurp the right of the House of Commons to choose who serves as prime minister. It’s basically a right-wing analogue of what the hard left were trying to do to Labour in the 1980s, a farce to the Bennite tragedy.

Nor would MPs tolerate such an arrangement; it would just make the process of deposing a premier who had lost their confidence vastly more damaging. Imagine a world in which Boris Johnson was kicked out of Downing Street but remained, untouchably, leader of the Conservative Party. What a fun timeline that would be.

And for all the pro forma denials, it is Johnson that the CDO is really about. His loyalists founded it and populated Saturday’s conference; it was his defenestration which was their call to arms. The great man did not grace Bournemouth with his presence, but he thoughtfully sent a video message. Individual CDO members may or may not have principled concerns about their party’s internal mechanisms, but they all want Boris back.

Yet believe it or not, even in comparison to the absurdity of their headline demand, it’s on this level that the entire phenomenon just gets really, bafflingly weird.

The CDO is a movement of people who think themselves the Conservative right. Their conference opened with a rousing ‘Hello real Conservatives!’; platform speakers such as Priti Patel blamed the party’s centre for the local election rout; early literature was indiscreet about the importance of wresting control of the party back from the left.

Certainly, there are plenty of grounds for right-wingers to be discontented with the Government, busy as it is with easing immigration restrictions, hiking taxes, and soft-pedalling on Brexit (readers’ mileage may vary). But in what universe is the totem for such a movement Boris Johnson? 

It was he, after all, who won that ‘once-in-a-generation’ majority by making vague promises to hose money at the North of England in the name of ‘levelling up’; it was he who signed off on the vast pandemic spending some on the right blame for fuelling inflation and voters’ expectations of the state; it was he who oversaw the quiet relaxation of immigration restrictions under the points-based system.

And as for the latest row, it was he who in three years in post never found the time to table any legislation dealing with the question of retained EU law – Liz Truss managed it, and she didn’t get 50 days.

As it happens, I think Johnson was right about where the future of the Conservatives’ electoral coalition is, and that Tories who are serious about leaning into that change could mount a powerful attack on the Sunak Government’s Treasury-brained approach to many important issues.

But such a critique would require crossing some mental Rubicons which the faithful are not yet ready to ford; it would, in parts, sound positively left-wing. Thus, in lieu of it, we get the bizarre spectacle of a gathering of self-professed rightists whose ambition is to dethrone a sincerely religious, fiscally-conservative family man in favour of a spendthrift serial adulterer.

This dogged loyalty is all the more remarkable because historically, the normal fate of Johnson loyalists is to be marched noisily up the hill and then left there. For a man reportedly so hungry to be prime minister, he has twice chickened out of a leadership contest, ceding the field to Theresa May and Rishi Sunak in turn. For some reason, he doesn’t get the blame for that either.

And if somehow the hour does cometh, and the man yet again does not, the poor infantry Dai-Johnson Rikugun won’t be able to say they weren’t warned. He only sent them a video on Saturday. At least the Imperial Japanese Army went back for Hiroo.

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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.