12 June 2023

With or without Boris, the Tories face a reckoning with their own future


Charles I made several mistakes in his conduct of the Civil Wars; that’s why he ended up going from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown, after all. But one of the first was abandoning the capital to raise his standard in Oxford, leaving Parliament in command of the seat of power and the Treasury.

If Boris Johnson’s intention is to start a Tory civil war – or ‘counter coup’, as some of his more excitable followers have dubbed it – then in quitting Parliament he has made a similar error. 

A string of by-election defeats over the summer may well destabilise the Government, but the only beneficiaries of that will be Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Outside the Commons, the former prime minister and his supporters are deprived both of their most important platform and the ability to press their case to disaffected colleagues on a daily basis.

But is that really the case? Johnson definitely has his die-hard supporters – I wrote about them last month – and they are a very vocal bunch. This can give the impression that they are more numerous than they really are. At ConservativeHome we survey the grassroots every month, and our editor summed up their real position thus:

‘About a quarter are determined Johnson backers, at least if our panel of party members is right.  Nonetheless, his standing with the same panel was erratic: Three of 2022’s six months of the Johnson premiership found him in negative territory.’

Ultimately, what most Conservative members want is a Conservative government – and it is difficult, based both on his own conduct and the anonymous quotes given to journalists by his supporters, to believe that Johnson currently feels the same. The objective seems to be bringing down Rishi Sunak, at any cost.

Should the Tories lose the next election (far and away the most likely outcome), there will almost certainly be a period of what we might call vigorous introspection. Most parties, upon losing office, lapse into internal conflict for a while.

This does nothing for their electoral prospects, of course. But it can be necessary, and in the Conservatives’ case it surely is. The party has to reckon with the fact that it will have been in office longer than was New Labour, but has achieved not a fraction of the sort of transformative change delivered by Tony Blair and cemented by Gordon Brown.

Such a reckoning means confronting some hard questions which strike at the very heart of what it means to be a Conservative in the circumstances of the 2020s.

For example: is it going to be increasingly impossible to be, in any substantive sense, a low-tax party? A degree of pre-election game-playing will always be doable, of course. But the major demands on the public purse – the NHS, social care, pensions – are only going in one direction. The only way to make cutting revenues viable is thus a substantial shift in what the state does, and its withdrawal from some areas in order to concentrate on doing others well whilst spending less money overall. 

To date, the Tories have shown no appetite for such a debate. David Cameron and George Osborne delivered an entirely un-strategic austerity programme in which budgets fell but the frontiers of the state remained largely intact; with the exception of Sure Start centres, it is difficult to think of anything government actually stopped doing. The result? What John Oxley has christened ‘shit-state conservatism’.

Liz Truss was toppled by a panicky market reaction to her tax cuts. But had she held out, she would have failed anyway: the spending cuts necessary to balance them were simply not deliverable

Then there’s immigration. The party has been committed to reducing it, in principle, for a very long time. 

But actually doing so would involve a lot of heavy lifting the Tories have not previously seemed inclined to do: hard thinking about the structure of the economy, greater recognition that the interests of business and the nation aren’t always in agreement, and the will to impose a coherent approach across all of government, rather than outsourcing the issue to the Home Office whilst other departments advocate for this or that short-term immigration boost to their own metrics.

That row is going to have to happen and was going to happen anyway. The ousting of Johnson will not have caused it, whatever his supporters claim; this is no analogue to the decades of psychodrama that followed the toppling of Margaret Thatcher.

But Johnson is unlikely to go away. He is a talented performer with a dedicated audience, and it would be remarkable if the right-wing media-entertainment complex doesn’t furnish him with a column, and perhaps a TV show – many Tory MPs with far less star power have got one, after all. Whether or not he re-enters Parliament (and I personally think any future Conservative leader would be mad to let him do so, if only for the sake of their own position) he will cast a shadow over the battles to come.

However, his role would be to offer succour to those who don’t want to confront the hard questions I set out above. Johnson is a political amnesiac: his letter announcing his resignation from the Commons was, more than anything else, a repudiation of his own record.

It was Johnson who smashed the Red Wall with the promise of a new, more spendthrift Toryism, and broke a manifesto commitment in order to hike National Insurance. It was Johnson who scrapped planning reform and sacked Robert Jenrick. It was Johnson who failed to bring forward any legislation to deal with retained EU law.

To his supporters, none of that seems to matter. He can simply talk about the need for a ‘properly Conservative government’ of a sort he never produced, and they lap it up. A key indicator of how prepared the party is for the hard work of re-orientating itself toward the problems of the 2020s is how many of its MPs and activists can resist the hallucinatory sugar-rush of Boris – and recall instead the reality of Johnson.

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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.