Conservatism is stretching its boundaries in Britain. Electorally it is extending ever further into previously hostile parts of England. In Downing Street, it is prolonging its tenure into a second decade, far beyond what many expected during all its disasters in office since 2010. In the opinion polls, it is widening its lead over Labour, in one recent survey to an impregnable feeling 18 points.
Above all, current Conservatism seems to be expanding what Tories are able to do in power. Increase corporation tax. Pay the wages of millions on furlough. Make “disruptive” protests illegal. Impose a border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Remove the borders between party donors, the state and Conservative cronies. Nationalise an airport, as the Tory mayor Ben Houchen has on Teesside. Privatise parts of the NHS in the middle of a pandemic.
Simultaneously, the Conservatives seem to be moving both leftwards and rightwards, looking outwards towards new voters and turning inwards, ever more ruthlessly pursuing the party’s own interests. For their opponents, the sheer profusion of Tory manoeuvres has been almost paralysing. Keir Starmer has struggled to find political territory, from patriotism to protecting jobs against Covid, that the Tories haven’t occupied already. Meanwhile, the Labour left has had to watch in frustration as its supposedly impractical 2019 manifesto has been repeatedly raided by the Conservatives for ideas and catchphrases such as the “green industrial revolution”.
British politics feels more dominated by one party than at any time since New Labour’s peak years almost a quarter of a century ago. Like Tony Blair, Boris Johnson seems to be leading a breakout from his party’s usual ideological and territorial zones, into a wider political space where a British prime minister can enjoy rare freedom of action and their party can shake off restrictive old associations.
Yet how New Labour achieved its breakthrough, and how it ended, contains warnings for the Conservatives. Blair’s ascendancy was made possible by two deals: not just the famous one between him and Gordon Brown, but also a tacit one between their party and its traditional supporters. This promised that if they voted for a Labour government that was going to make what Blair called “hard choices” – favouring the free market over nationalisation, for example – then the party would be in power for much longer than usual, and the Tory enemy would be marginalised.
During the 1997 election campaign, I watched John Prescott, Blair’s deliberately old-Labour deputy, deliver this message to halls of less than delighted leftists across the party’s English heartlands. But the strategy worked, for a while. In 1997, and to a lesser extent at the 2001 election, Labour attracted enough support from both old and new sources to win huge majorities, twice as big as Johnson has today.
Traditional Tories in the party’s southern English citadels are being offered a similar deal by his government now: accept a degree of “levelling up” in favour of the north and more state intervention in the economy than you’re used to, and our time in office will continue, far beyond the norm. So far, many of these voters have accepted Johnson’s ideological promiscuity, as they have his private life.
But there are signs of discontent. In this month’s elections, the Tories suffered a net loss of council seats in south-east England. “Voters in plusher Conservative-held areas,” wrote the watchful Tory commentator Paul Goodman, “feel culturally alienated” from Johnson’s version of Conservatism, and are beginning to switch to other parties. Goodman described this phenomenon as “a potential Blue Wall effect” – a pattern of defections by previously loyal supporters that might echo Labour’s electoral decline in the so-called red wall. In Worthing in West Sussex, where this month the Conservatives almost lost control of the council, the local Tory MP Tim Loughton was blunter: “We have got a problem,” he told the Financial Times. “All the focus has been on the red wall, winning and cementing gains up there … But levelling up can’t just be about the north.”
For much of its existence, British Conservatism has really been a form of southern English nationalism, ruling these islands principally for the benefit of the region’s big landowners, the home counties and the richer parts of London. Are Tory voters – not always known for their altruism – really that keen for opportunities to be distributed more equally “across all parts of the United Kingdom”, as the government promised in this month’s Queen’s speech? Better jobs and transport in the north might ultimately reduce the value of properties owned by southern Tories, for example, by making the north a better place to live.
And if the government’s desire to level up is insincere – always a strong possibility with Johnson – the rhetoric alone is a political risk. If politics becomes a competition about which party can sound the most egalitarian, that’s a contest that in the end the Conservatives probably won’t win. As New Labour discovered, when its vote dropped sharply from 2001 onwards, politics is rarely conducted successfully for long on the enemy’s terms. By accepting much of Thatcherism, and seeming not to value many of their party’s most faithful supporters, Blair and Brown ultimately stretched Labour politics too far.
Johnson may have done something similar by allowing Dominic Cummings to become so important in his government. Cummings is not a Tory, and that surely sharpened his select committee testimony this week. His contempt for “Hancock”, and his comparison of the prime minister to an out-of-control shopping trolley echoed things he had said about other Conservative politicians. Only an overconfident party allows such an outsider to become an insider.
Many people believe that British Conservatism is uniquely flexible: that it can stretch to include almost any policy, strategy or interest group. But that’s not true. From its split over free trade in the 1840s to its civil wars over Thatcherism and Europe in the 1990s, the party has sometimes fragmented disastrously – often when, as now, it feels most secure in power.
It’s also striking how much of Britain Johnson’s supposedly all-encompassing Conservatism doesn’t represent, or care much about: not just most of Scotland and Wales, but also England’s cities and the vast majority of young Britons. Johnson’s is not really a “one nation” government, but a government for the 40%. In our electoral system, and with our press, a Tory premier with that level of support can sometimes present themselves as a national unifier. But when the government’s Covid bills come due, Johnson will have to do more choosing between interests and policies than he has so far. Then we’ll discover whether his elastic Conservatism is going to snap.