Whether it’s his hard Brexit agenda, the barring of journalists or the reforms of the justice system, the latest rows in Downing Street show the prime minister is neither a liberal politician or a Tory.
Number 10’s spin machine, controlled by the prime minister’s Svengali, Vote Leave campaigner Dominic Cummings, took a leaf out of Donald Trump’s playbook by trying to brief only favoured journalists about government EU trade negotiation plans while denying access to more sceptical sources.
Fortunately, this latest Trumpian tactic backfired when invited members of the Fourth Estate stood up for their profession and refused to attend the briefing in solidarity with their spurned colleagues, reigniting a debate about Johnson’s supposed liberal ‘One Nation’ Tory credentials, much touted by Downing Street.
Through last summer’s Conservative Party leadership election and the first few months of his premiership, Johnson’s handlers spun him as a reincarnation of Tory grandee Michael Heseltine’s liberal Toryism shorn of the latter’s enthusiasm for the European project. This theoretical fusion of moderate conservatism and support for the Brexit cause Johnson opportunistically joined at the last possible moment is crafted to appeal to the diminished ‘One Nation’ caucus of Tory parliamentarians who overwhelmingly backed Remain in 2016’s referendum and the dwindling number of Tory-Remain voters generally.
Politicians have been categorised by ideology as a way to understand their motives for so long that this is immortalised in a late 19th century Gilbert and Sullivan line: “That every boy and every gal/That’s born into the world alive/Is either a little Liberal/or else a little Conservative.” But Johnson is not a liberal or a conservative. He is a Boris Johnsonite, whose ambition isn’t a means to an end but instead is an end in itself, taking precedence over everything else.
In this, Johnson, like his transatlantic twin, celebrity-politician Trump, is better understood by historian Sir Lewis Namier whose classic 1929 study, The Structure of Politics at the time of George III, concluded that men “no more dreamt of a seat in the House [of Commons] to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it.”
Super-charged self-interest helps explain populism’s apparent contradictions. More conventional and responsible politicians might seek to calibrate approaches to tax and spending out of concern for the state of the government’s finances. By contrast, Johnson is comfortable championing lower taxes to traditional Tory supporters in the south of England while wooing new supporters in the north with higher spending.
But populism isn’t democratically sustainable. Eventually holding down taxes while boosting spending forces a choice, just as ignoring economics to indulge nationalist and nativist sentiment has costs which can’t be avoided.
Under the hard Brexit currently pursued by the government, the entire UK will take a 5-8% hit over 15 years, as befits a policy built on emotion rather than hard-headed economic interest. By contrast, potential free trade deals will only raise GDP by 0.1-0.4%, according to its own figures.
Contrary to the prime minister’s carefully cultivated ‘One Nation’ credentials, Brexit’s damage is set to fall most acutely in the struggling English regions where the Tories have recently gained ground, as they are less developed and diversified and consequently more vulnerable to economic shock and dislocation.
England’s poorest region, the North East, will pay the highest price, losing 11% of GDP over 15 years if a basic free trade agreement replaces the unfettered access to Europe’s lucrative half-billion-person internal market that attracted Nissan to Sunderland among other inward investors, according to the government’s own analysis. This loss rises to a catastrophic 18% over 15 years with a no-deal crash out. This from the party once represented by Harold Macmillan in Stockton-on-Tees in the interwar years, whose ‘One Nation’ politics was shaped by the mass unemployment he witnessed there.
In London, the anti-immigrant mentality evident in the government’s determination to end the free movement legislated for by Margaret Thatcher and John Major will damage productivity in the capital where one in six employees are EU nationals by restricting newcomers. More immediately serious is the foolhardy decision to discard the City’s passporting trading rights by leaving the single market.
As well as widening the North-South divide, the Tories’ new-found economic nationalism threatens to divide communities and fuel prejudice. Already, there has been a sharp increase in hate crimes since 2016’s ill-advised referendum. The party’s opposition to free movement owes more to the tradition of Enoch Powell, sacked from Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet after his notorious 1968 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech than Heseltine, who rebelled against his party to back Labour’s anti-discrimination 1965 Race Relations Act.
Humanitarianism comes second to the anti-immigrant mindset now infecting the Tories. This is no longer the party that under Heath provided a safe haven for Commonwealth-Ugandan Asians persecuted and expelled by Idi Amin. When the courts recently ruled that it was illegal for the government to deport British citizens, a government ‘spokesperson’ said only the Westminster bubble cared about this.
Today’s Tories oppose even the Dubs amendment to 2016’s Immigration Act, offering unaccompanied refugee children safe passage to Britain, in concert with EU nations, amid the European migrant crisis. Lord Dubs was a beneficiary of the life-saving Kindertransport mission that took thousands of Jewish refugees like him to safety from Nazi Germany ahead of the Second World War.
The Dubs amendment is one of a number of opportunities to cooperate with European allies and partners that don’t require EU membership. One such is the European Convention on Human Rights, a landmark legal charter of rights established by European nations under the Council of Europe after the Second World War and to which a Conservative government in 1958 became a signatory. Winston Churchill keenly championed it. Yet the government is refusing to commit to continuing to support it.
Similarly placed is the UK’s participation in the EU’s Erasmus programme, which annually enables more than 17,000 UK students across Europe to study, train, volunteer or spend time abroad as part of their degree at no additional cost to their higher education. Erasmus has made studying abroad attractive and affordable. The EU gives them a monthly living grant, with young people from low-income backgrounds receiving higher bursaries and travel grants. Some one million ‘Erasmus babies’ have been born to European couples who participated in the scheme since its introduction, strengthening cross-national ties. But the Government pointedly refuses to commit to continued UK participation from outside the EU.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s government has broken with established liberal-Conservative values with regard to internationally-respected British institutions. From illegally proroguing parliament for five weeks to try to force its Brexit legislation through with mere days of scrutiny, to darkly hinting at legislative action against the Supreme Court, including political vetting of judges, for overturning this.
Government also threatens the funding and impartiality of the independent BBC, and in yet another break from previous practice frequently refuses to provide spokespeople to defend the government’s position.
Unconstrained by higher ethical or political values, this opportunistic abuse of power places carries the danger that is unchecked—least of all by the prime minister who so readily concocted untruths and was abusive in print about minorities as a journalist keen to advance in the right-wing press.
This sense of unrestrained executive power has been swiftly confirmed by the prime minister’s first opportunity to stamp his authority upon it since December’s election victory. The new attorney general, the government’s chief legal adviser, was appointed days after unleashing a broadside against “unelected, unaccountable” judges and who recently argued that “the concept of ‘fundamental’ human rights has been stretched beyond recognition.” This is quite the change from older Tory support for an independent judiciary against left-wing attacks.
In yet another sign that independent sources of power aren’t welcome, the outgoing chancellor, upon resigning after being told to have the prime minister’s office appoint rather than merely approve his Treasury special advisers felt it necessary to warn: “I would urge you to ensure that the Treasury as an institution retains as much credibility as possible” adding “I hope they can continue to play a central role in developing an economic agenda.” Is civil service neutrality in the government’s sights?
The chancellor’s replacement with a more biddable successor also likely indicates a change in policy to a more populist emphasis on higher government spending and borrowing in place of more traditional Tory orthodoxy. But then what else to expect from a prime minister who famously said “fuck business”?
Traditional Tory touchstones of economic competence and the strength of the union don’t have the same salience under this administration. This nationalist populism sets Boris Johnson’s Conservatives apart from both the party’s socially and internationally liberal, ‘One Nation’ and economically liberal traditions. Where Thatcher, Major and Cameron sought to dissuade defectors and reign-in rebels, Johnson purges even ex-senior ministers. Institutions, values and standards respected by recent predecessors come second to this prime minister who always puts himself first.
– Barnaby Towns is a former Conservative Party adviser.