For proof of how dangerous Boris Johnson’s leadership has become, consider this: public health policy is now merely a subplot in the horrendous drama engulfing the Conservative party. Over the weekend, as government advisers urged caution over Covid restrictions, the prime minister’s allies suggested that the imminent lifting of England’s remaining curbs would launch his fightback. But an unnamed minister cited in the Spectator thought that binning the last rules could neatly coincide with the prime minister’s resignation. This, it was said, would give him an opportunity to claim a huge job had been done and “depart with dignity”. But as with most of what we are hearing from senior Tories, the suggestion seemed to have another meaning: his exit is imagined not just as the end of Johnson’s time at the top, but the curtain falling on a period of interventionist, big-spending government, so normal Tory service can be resumed.
Clearly, the prime minister’s disgrace is entirely down to events in Downing Street, the dreadful symbolism of so many elements of the story, and an administration mired in arrogance, deceit and an awful absence of seriousness – a condition now to be cured by a staff-blaming effort which has been named “Operation Save Big Dog”. But in the surrounding mood music, there are also ideological elements. Over the past two years, as the Treasury funded people’s wages, austerity diminished as a political priority, and the state’s reach increased to an extent unseen outside wartime, there has been a lot of speculation about how those changes would permanently alter politics.
For the Tories, such a shift would have gone with the grain of a lot of what Johnson embraced, albeit in his usual half-arsed way: his embryonic “levelling up” drive, a readiness to put up taxes, the flexing of the state’s muscles in pursuit of net zero carbon emissions. But nearly two years on from the start of the pandemic, with the prime minister seemingly broken and potential successors on less than subtle manoeuvres, Conservatism does not feel like that at all.
Rather than pushing their politics somewhere new, the Covid crisis seems to have sent terrified Tories back to their old beliefs – in small government, untrammelled business and the idea that even well-intentioned spending always leads to disaster. Back in December, when the government faced a huge parliamentary rebellion over new restrictions, Westminster journalists were picking up anxiety among Conservative MPs about a “Covid state”, and the risk of Johnson creating a “high-tax, high-spending, high-inflation country”. Steve Baker, the de facto leader of the Brexit backbench hardcore, thinks that “today’s Conservative party is in the wrong place and heading in the opposite direction of Conservatism”. Meanwhile, rightwing columnists rage at a government supposedly waging war “on cars, foreign travel and all other parts of the suburban dream”.
As ever, a reliable indicator of Tory restlessness is how often people mention Margaret Thatcher. Baker has just relaunched the self-consciously Thatcherite pressure group Conservative Way Forward. Meanwhile, the frontrunners for Johnson’s job are routinely seen as inheritors of her mantle. According to the Economist, Rishi Sunak “has the same ingrained enthusiasm for balancing budgets and limiting expenditure as the grocer’s daughter had”. Liz Truss seems ecstatically happy to give the impression of someone starring in a school play about the blessed Margaret, and makes speeches about the dangers of “inexorably growing the size of the state”, as opposed to the wonders of “free trade and free enterprise”.
Much the same instincts define potential candidates such as Kwasi Kwarteng, Nadhim Zahawi and Priti Patel. If Johnson’s more interventionist Toryism has any base of support, it probably lies among the new MPs elected in the so-called red wall seats, but they are too marginal and inexperienced to field a candidate, or exert much influence. So, when his fall comes, it looks set to herald a moment of ideological restoration. Johnson’s reckless authoritarianism – the one aspect of his record that does echo Thatcher – will presumably be retained; what will be thrown overboard will be the last meaningful traces of levelling up, and any pretence that Conservatism is interested in changing the economy for the good of society.
Is this what 2022 really demands? Thatcherism may still define the Tory soul, the country it was designed to change has long gone thanks to Conservative victories in the 1980s. The revolution was not left half-finished but completed: there are no powerful unions to tame, no utilities to privatise, no big bang to detonate in the City, and not much else to deregulate. Some Conservatives would like to finally subject the NHS to the disciplines of profit and loss, but to do so would risk political calamity. The resumed cutting of public spending might gladden Thatcherite hearts, but more sensible Tories long ago realised that austerity had already gone way too far.
The reason that there have been sporadic Tory attempts to move away from the politics of the free market – the fitful stirrings of “red Toryism”, the tilts in that direction under both Johnson and Theresa May – is because that approach has long since run out of road. Certainly, if whoever succeeds Johnson wants to sustain the electoral coalition that delivered victory two years ago, the need for different thinking should be obvious.
Yet the self-styled inheritors of Thatcherism have always wanted to keep the revolution going, and their furious zeal has long since turned Conservative politics unhinged and strange. In the absence of a big, disruptive Thatcher-esque project, Brexit – along with the insane idea of turning the UK economy into “Singapore-on-Thames” – moved from the political fringes to the Tory mainstream and unsettled the party’s relationship with many of its old suburban heartlands, which are not just full of remainers but increasingly liberal and left-leaning.
In the beliefs of Truss, Kwarteng, Patel and more, you see Thatcherism taken to its logical conclusion, as a cold credo that wants to completely subjugate life to the demands of the market. (Remember that notorious sentence in their book Britannia Unchained: “Once they enter the workplace, the British are among the worst idlers in the world.”) In the hands of Baker and co, Thatcher’s legacy has ceased to be about ideas and policy, but has been reduced instead to a puritanical animus that leads people to endlessly scent betrayal and plot against the people at the top. The Tories may soon be on to their seventh leader in 20 years. This, perhaps, is what happens when a party simply doesn’t know what to do with itself.
Among people on the left, there is a righteous relish about the prospect of Johnson’s departure, and with very good reason. But this should be seen as an uneasy moment, replete with both hope and danger. Even if he goes, it could be nearly three years until another general election. Any Conservative voices who might warn against their party’s resurgent right are so far conspicuously quiet. If the next occupant of Downing Street attempts the full-blown return of Tory ideas that have already torn Britain apart, could the weary public mood after Brexit and Covid allow them to succeed? Or will something so clearly out of step with its time soon fail? Whenever post-Johnson politics arrives, these will be its defining questions.