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The torn-apart Tory party

An exhausted, incoherent government is the by-product of a confused, chaotic Conservatism that no longer knows what it stands for.

Photo: Montage by The New European.

Most voters concluded long ago that Boris Johnson set the rules, broke the rules and lied about doing so. But for now, those voters can only fume impotently. There is only one group that has agency in this affair, and they are Conservative MPs.

While the drip-drip-drip of letters is badly damaging to Boris Johnson, most of them either continue to express support for Johnson or are keeping their heads down. That may change, but they – like us – are missing something obvious.

There are many dark layers to Partygate, but the most significant is largely overlooked. Lurking beneath the drama are revelations about the state of the modern Conservative Party. They have nothing to do directly with the parties and the lying, but they matter at least as much because the Conservatives are England’s governing party of choice, irrespective of leadership. They rule most of the time. The current parliamentary party is easily pleased.
When Johnson realised he needed to woo his MPs he threw them “red meat”. In doing so he shed much light on his MPs as well as his own inability to frame and implement policies of depth.

This was the form that the red meat took. In what was laughably described as a “policy blitz”, the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, tweeted that the BBC’s currently miserly licence fee settlement would be its last. The Times newspaper was briefed that the army would be responsible for policing the borders. Other papers were told that Ghana was the government’s dumping place of choice for those asylum seekers it turned away with populist machismo. More recently, Johnson has promised a bonfire of red tape, hailing “post-Brexit freedoms”. Michael Gove promised the definitive word on Levelling Up.

Imagine the frenzied conversations in No 10 that led to these initiatives being speedily unveiled. “This is what they want… so let’s give them what they want… and we can get them back on side.”

The red meat turned out to be closer to an undercooked, frozen vegan beanburger. Indeed, Dorries’ Commons statement on the BBC is one of the great emblematic moments in the Partygate scandal. With a flourish she had tweeted that this was the end of the licence fee, only to tell MPs that she was not sure whether this was the case.

Tory MPs were bemused. Some had come waiting to celebrate the great moment when the publicly funded BBC, a challenge to every ideological instinct in their half-formed political bodies, was drawing to a close. Others were planning to protest, wondering how they would explain to elderly constituents that if they wanted to listen to The Archers a subscription would be required. Dorries had not got a clue what would happen next. She was “starting a debate”, the easy bit when vaguely contemplating any fundamental reform.

Meanwhile, leaders in Ghana made clear their country was not available for asylum seekers the UK government sought to turn away. The army was unclear what role it could perform in policing the borders, a proposal that had been made before and had come to nothing.

As for post-Brexit freedoms, a bonfire of regulations was promised by Tory ministers every few years when the UK was in the EU. It was not the EU that stopped the raging blaze. Ministers discovered most of the regulations were necessary, as they will do with the next “bonfire”. Gove’s plan was dismissed as reheated old announcements with little or no new funding.

That was more or less the agenda Johnson considered would please his MPs. A prime minister who had won a near-landslide election two years earlier sought to dance in harmony with his MPs and could not even find a discordant tune. There was hardly any music and only a tentative dance.
Johnson regards policies as being similar to his newspaper columns, a form of fleetingly pleasing expression. But he is not wholly to blame for the reactionary vacuum at the heart of his government.

He was right to assume that quite a lot of his MPs yearn for “red meat”. Some of them call for the tax rise to pay for the NHS and, in theory at least, social care to be dropped. A lot yearn for a “guarantee” that no Covid restrictions will be imposed under any circumstances ever again.

Some call for tax cuts to be introduced as part of the “Brexit dividend”. Quite a few want the government to trigger Article 16 of the Irish protocol and go into battle once more with the European Union. This is the agenda that excites the parliamentary party. If some turn on Johnson it is partly because he is not right wing enough.

Bizarrely, the lightweight courtier and former Brexit minister, Lord Frost, has become a hero for right wing newspapers and quite a few Tory MPs. Rarely a day passes when he has not written for the Mail, the Telegraph or the Sun. Frost ran a mile when the Brexit negotiations became complex, resigning rather than facing the consequences of his own naively jingoistic approach. Frost was rarely heard as he engaged in thorny negotiations as a minister. Now he is everywhere, arguing for a much smaller state, turbocharged Thatcherism.

Conveniently, Frost does not have to face an electorate and never has done. But quite a few Tory MPs also hail these ill-thought-through proclamations. At the same time they want NHS waiting lists to fall and a levelling-up agenda that includes significant investment. They want to have their cake and eat it.

“Cakeism” is the defining creed of England’s governing party, a global Britain that makes some foreigners feel unwelcome, a low-tax party that wants higher spending, a party that hailed Johnson’s Brexit deal and does not want to accept the inevitable consequence – a barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. There are many other examples of contradictory aspirations on the Conservative backbenches accompanied by policy declarations from ministers that fall apart after a moment’s scrutiny.
Part of the reason for the tired, bewildered incoherence is the longevity of this government. Governments become exhausted, especially those that serve several successive terms. John Major’s administration staggered helplessly towards its slaughter in 1997. Gordon Brown struggled to find a distinctive fresh policy agenda to accompany his epic response to the 2008 financial crash, after 10 wearying years as chancellor before becoming prime minister halfway through Labour’s third term. We are now in the fourth term of a Conservative administration and there is little energy beyond managing or mismanaging Johnson’s various crises and working out what to do next.

Even so, the explanation for the current frenzied aimlessness goes much deeper than the exhaustion of a long-serving administration being led by a casually mendacious rule-breaker out of his depth. Post-Brexit, the government does not know whether to intervene and invest more or to aim for a Singapore-style economy of low taxes and light regulation.
Johnson has described himself as a “Brexity Hezza”, referring to Michael Heseltine, still the figure who comes closest to being a Conservative moderniser in his recognition of the good the state can do while also being an advocate of free markets. The Singapore alternative is espoused to some extent by Rishi Sunak, who ended his budget last year by contradicting the earlier sections in declaring his support for tax cuts, a smaller state and the need for more personal responsibility. Sunak’s budget statement last autumn is a historic document containing the confused, contradictory approach of the modern Conservative party, putting the case both for a bigger and smaller state in the same speech. His words should be framed, along with the Dorries statement on the future of the BBC.

The roots of the party’s current chaotic confusion go back a long way. They can be traced to a single room at Westminster in February 1975 when the party’s the- leader, Edward Heath, got the result of the first round of the Conservatives’ leadership contest. Margaret Thatcher had beaten him by a significant margin. Heath’s adviser, the future cabinet minister William Waldegrave, was in the room with him. According to Waldegrave’s illuminating memoirs, Heath looked up and declared “It’s over”. Waldegrave took this briefest of sentences to have a dual meaning. Obviously, Heath knew his leadership was over, but although self-centred, he could delve deeper than that. He meant also that the one-nation Tory party was over. The party had elected a right wing ideologue far removed from the politics of Rab Butler, Harold Macmillan and himself.

Heath was hopeless at dealing with people, but a smart judge of political personalities. He was broadly right about Thatcher, although he underestimated her capacity for pragmatism if she judged that a degree of caution was unavoidable. She not only changed her party, but won three big election victories in the process.

Yet in the autumn of 1990 Conservative MPs decided to remove her. Crucially, they did not fully know why they were doing so. Were they acting because they thought their party needed to move on from Thatcherism? Did they want to retain the ideology but not this particular ideologue?
In choosing John Major they fudged the answer. Thatcher and her followers assumed wrongly that Major was a Thatcherite. Others knew he was not. Major struggled to keep both sides happy and his leadership became a form of hell as his party became increasingly impossible to lead.

Ever since, the party has still not fully answered the question raised by the fall of Thatcher. Belatedly, both Theresa May and Johnson have tried finally to move their party on, but in ways that were haphazard and narrow. On the day of her election as Prime Minister in 2016, May spoke of the “good that the state can do”, a phrase that would not have been uttered by any of her post-Thatcher predecessors. In a limited way she was seeking a return to one-nation Conservatism, but never got anywhere, submerged by Brexit.
In one speech after his election triumph in 2019 Johnson hailed big public spending projects; “call me Rooseveltian” he declared, with reference to the US president who was a big public spender and brought in the New Deal. Sometimes Johnson refers to his leadership as “one-nation Conservatism”, but he is more the founder of the “cakeism” philosophy. He has also described Thatcher as his heroine and hails the benefits of low taxes. In some respects Johnson personifies the contradictions of a party still struggling to come to terms with Thatcher nearly half a century after she was first elected leader.

Some do not even struggle. Both Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss worship at her altar. If either were to succeed Johnson they would take their party to the right. Arguably any successor would have no choice but to do so. In order to win, a candidate must pitch to an elderly membership that has never fully got over the removal of Thatcher.

One of the great current myths of British politics is that the Conservative Party wins so many elections because it is supremely agile at adapting to the moving tides. In reality, the party has still to decide whether to leave behind Thatcherism, a creed that was formed out of the specific economic circumstances of the 1970s. Part of Johnson and a part of May, along with the likes of Michael Heseltine, know that today’s challenges demand much fresh thinking. With Conservative MPs representing the so-called Red Wall, there are electoral reasons for reinventing one-nation Toryism in a modern era. These seats need much higher levels of investment than Sunak is willing to spend. But like Sunak most Tory MPs cannot quite let go of their devotion to Thatcher.

All the various leadership crises, including the ones erupting around Johnson, are symptoms of the ideological bewilderment in the modern Conservative Party and not the cause. Neither Johnson, proclaiming Roosevelt, Heseltine and Thatcher as models, nor any of his possible successors, show any sign of being able to answer the question first posed in 1990. Why did the party get rid of Thatcher? Until there is resolution there will be more leadership crises and policy disasters of which Brexit is the most calamitous example so far.

The scandal over the parties is far from over. Whether it ends with a new leader or not, the Conservatives face an even deeper challenge, and that is to decide what they are for in an era unrecognisably different to when Thatcher cast her spell.

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