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Good morning. Oliver Dowden has not triggered a Cabinet walkout. Although, as Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe reports in an insightful piece, many Conservative MPs are alarmed by Boris Johnson’s claim that he is planning on three terms in power, the prime minister’s survival is, for now, secured by the absence of compelling alternatives to him.
Some thoughts on the electoral implications of last week’s by-elections in Yorkshire and Devon. I also try to answer one of your most frequent questions: why aren’t Conservative MPs more excited by Ben Wallace? Please get in touch with more questions (or, for those of you who are MPs, with the answers) at the below address.
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Fight to decide | Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon will tomorrow outline a road map towards an independence referendum that the Scottish National party wants to hold by the end of 2023. Could Brexit be Sturgeon’s game-changer to break away from the UK?
First vote | The government presses on with legislation today to unilaterally rip up Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements. Plus, Boris Johnson hinted yesterday the UK may extend tariffs on imported steel despite the risk of breaching World Trade Organization rules.
Four big areas | In an opinion article for the FT, UK foreign secretary Liz Truss defends the new Northern Ireland protocol bill as necessary and legal. “We are moving forward with legislation to fix the specific problems that the protocol is causing while maintaining those parts that are working,” Truss writes.
Circle the drain
What does Boris Johnson’s double by-election defeat last week mean for Conservative hopes at the next election? Nothing at all.
By-elections and local elections are the electoral equivalent of a check-up: just because it shows you have high cholesterol or elevated liver function doesn’t mean that those are the things that are going to kill you. Something as simple as eating less salted butter or cutting down on booze may save you.
What the by-election results tell us is that if there had been a general election held last week, the Conservatives would not have been re-elected. They suggest that, in terms of the thorny question of “are the polls about right?”, yeah, probably, all things being equal, the high single-digit leads most pollsters are showing are about right.
But none of this is particularly revelatory: consumer confidence is at a record low, growth is low, inflation is high. The Conservative government’s legislative agenda has been derailed by a combination of Covid-19 and executive dysfunction. The Labour opposition does not frighten or excite people.
Martin Wolf’s column today is on the state of the UK economy, and it is essential but not cheering reading:
Bad times lie ahead. The question is how bad.
That’s one reason why Conservatives are engaging in weird special pleading about these elections. No Tory was all that bothered by tactical voting in 2016, when the Liberal Democrats won Richmond Park in a by-election, and the Labour party got fewer votes than the constituency had members. No Conservative fretted about “pacts” last year when the Lib Dems lost their deposit in the Batley and Spen by-election or Labour went down to a record-breaking low in Chesham and Amersham.
The simple reason for this is that in 2016 and 2021 most Tories genuinely thought they would go on to win the next election. Now, they only feel they have to pretend that’s the case in public. With a handful of exceptions, the divide that really matters at the moment is between Conservative MPs who think that they have a better chance of mitigating the damage with Johnson and those who think they have a better chance without him.
I’ve Ben thinking about you
One of the most frequent questions I get from subscribers at this point is “but what about Ben Wallace?” The 52-year-old UK defence secretary is generally agreed to have distinguished himself during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and has started to regularly rank as the ruling Conservative party’s most popular cabinet minister with activists, according to a ConservativeHome survey. My colleague John-Paul Rathbone has written a profile of the Wyre and Preston North MP.
One issue is that Wallace is a longtime Boris Johnson loyalist (as one MP joked to me recently, “Ben has been loyal to Johnson throughout all his incarnations”), and there aren’t really “Wallace people” who organise for him in the parliamentary party with a separate existence or power base from the prime minister.
That’s not the only reason Johnson narrowly survived the confidence vote in his leadership. There also weren’t enough candidates lobbying to replace him. The former Conservative leadership contender Jeremy Hunt has only relatively recently begun actively courting colleagues and most of the would-be contestants haven’t even got that far.
But Wallace’s other problem, as John-Paul touches on, is that he is from the party’s left flank. Even MPs from the party’s left fear that their candidates will be rejected by the membership and they will end up moving further from the political centre, not closer to it.
Now, while Johnson’s personal politics are themselves hard to fathom/changeable/a thing he discards in order to secure his own advancement (delete according to taste), the simple truth is that Johnson’s government is to the left of that of Cameron and May in most aspects. Taxes are higher, and so is public spending. Park for a moment the questions you may have about Johnson’s commitment to it, or his competence to deliver it. Rhetorically at least, Johnson’s government is sitting in what Robert Shrimsley described recently as the new centre ground of UK politics:
Brexit will not soon be reversed. Promises of levelling up, more police, control of immigration, performative patriotism and more money for public services mark the current centre ground of politics.
Now, I wouldn’t dispute that characterisation, but I would add another feature: a loud embrace of the net zero target. Voters of all types really care about that target — we can have a separate conversation about their willingness to actually make the changes necessary to get there, but they want their politicians to pay lip service to it.
The fear for Conservative MPs who think “Johnsonism” is the right mix electorally is that they worry that any leadership election would see the Conservatives move away from net zero and away from public spending — and that while control of immigration and ostentatious displays of patriotic feeling are important to their party’s electoral appeal, they aren’t on their own enough to keep the Tories in office.
One reason why Johnson has been able to get away with his heresies is that the Conservative rank-and-file have always extended a great deal of latitude his way. It’s certainly possible that in a leadership election, Wallace’s military service and his Cabinet tenure mean he can get elected despite being in many aspects one of the most leftwing members of the Cabinet and the parliamentary party. But it’s equally possible he might not, and if you are a Tory MP who likes the look of Wallace, you are also a Tory MP who really worries about what you might get instead of Wallace.
And that’s a big reason why, for the moment, none of the candidates are winning over enough Conservative MPs to dislodge Johnson. MPs worry that once a leadership election starts, they can’t guarantee they won’t end up in a worse place than they are now.
Now try this
I saw Wings of Desire on Saturday. The new remaster of the 1987 film looks and sounds fantastic, and is really worth seeing during its limited release or on Curzon Home Cinema. (There is no physical release scheduled as it stands but I will update this space as and when there is one.)
My thanks to the many readers who suggested I check out Soho’s Blanchette restaurant, which really is a delightful place to spend an evening on its own right.