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Cheering on Boris is the polite Tory way of calling Cameron a loser

The Mayor is not a future leader; he is a living taunt directed at the current one.

It is more than 20 years since the Conservative Party last won a British general election. Even when David Cameron took on Gordon Brown, a tumbledown leader heading a despondent Labour Party, he could not match John Major’s performance against Neil Kinnock in April 1992. He became Prime Minister but failed, in his own words, to “seal the deal” and secure a parliamentary majority.

The most confident suitor would be scarred by two decades of rejection and, beneath the governing swagger that is their cultural trademark, Tories are wracked by insecurity about electoral unattractiveness. So it is not surprising that many Conservatives are obsessed with the one high-profile candidate who seems able to win public affection as well as office: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

He won the London mayoralty in 2008 despite the capital’s historical Labour bias and held it four years later on the very day that his party took a pummelling in council elections. His reward is to host the Olympics, which will be for Boris – the only Tory whose first name is a political brand – a festival of self-promotion.

Johnson’s unique achievement is to have seduced Labour voters while also tickling the fancy of the Tory right. The inability of his party’s leader to do the same is an open wound in Downing Street to which the London Mayor gladly applies salt. Boris touts his horror of the European Union when Cameron would hose down his party’s aggressive Euroscepticism; he defends the City when George Osborne is under pressure to decry fraudulent fat-cattery.

Both sides, now

Cruellest of all – O, fickle public! – while the Prime Minister seems weighed down by the baggage of an Eton education, Boris flaunts his elite training at the same school, winning ovations with Latin orations. Cameron’s leadership has been driven by the urge to apologise for his party’s alienation from modern Britain; Johnson is celebrated as a cartoon Conservative.

Boris has never confirmed that he wants to be prime minister but he reeks of grandiose ambition. A career in media pursued alongside politics – he edited the Spectator magazine and writes a column in the Telegraph – has acquired him a coterie of cheerleaders who routinely advertise his leadership credentials.

In reality, Boris’s wins must be draped in caveat. In 2008, Labour was at a low ebb and Ken Livingstone, the incumbent mayor, looked spent after two terms in office. The barrel of Londoners’ goodwill towards Livingstone was scraped bare by 2012, when he stood again. A rematch against the day-before-yesterday’s man gifted Boris victory. The race was still closer than most commentators had anticipated.

The London mayoralty is also a job without much executive power. Voters know that the post is symbolic and so are prepared to fill it with someone more characterful than competent. Johnson is bored by municipal detail. He has no appetite for transport strategies, air quality control or waste disposal. His management style is marked by chaos and neglect.

Vital decisions are made and unmade several times over. There are planning disputes in which opposing parties have both produced letters supporting their case from the Mayor’s office. Boris can be won over by one side and then, forgetting the earlier conviction, be persuaded of the opposite view days later.

Johnson’s first year in office saw a succession of minor scandals resulting in the departure of five senior appointees – including three deputy mayors. His most successful personnel decision was to retain Neale Coleman, the man his predecessor had appointed as chief adviser on the Olympics. Livingstone is said to have warned his successor that the Games would fail without Coleman’s expertise.

It is to Johnson’s credit that he heeded that counsel and has since formed a close part­nership with a former Labour councillor. However, Coleman is also an erudite, Oxford-educated classicist, which counts for more in Boris’s estimation than political allegiance.

That ecumenical intellect is the side of Boris that disorients the left. His Labour detractors want him to be a Tory fanatic whose affable mask can be prised away. Yet he can be sincerely swayed by liberal-left argument – and just as sincerely swayed back. It is a trait also ignored by his fans on the right (where, for example, his interest in an amnesty for illegal immigrants
is conveniently forgotten).

The devil’s work

He is, in that respect, a very different political animal to his great rival – not Cameron, who has already beaten him to Downing Street, but Osborne, against whom he competes in an undeclared succession battle. The Chancellor is a tribal Tory who does not squander brain power on ideas that are anathema to the party. The antipathy between the two men is potent, although the race they are running takes place largely in their heads, cheered on by their tiny retinues. “I keep hearing about ‘Team Boris’ and ‘Team George’ but I don’t meet many people who belong to either,” says one Tory MP.

Unlike Osborne, Boris has no base in the parliamentary party. His service as a shadow minister under Michael Howard’s leadership was distinguished by gaffes and scandal – including tales of sexual indiscretion that would disqualify him from playing the wholesome family man, a role required of all prime ministers.

Boris ought to be satisfied with his current job. He has hit a cruising altitude at which a high profile can coexist with base irresponsibility. But he is restless. He has told aides he intends to perform his mayoral duties on an unofficial part-time basis after the Olympics. (He has seven deputy mayors to run the capital.) That leaves Johnson with more than three years of idleness on his hands, which from Downing Street’s point of view means endless scope for political devilry.

Despite some midterm chatter, no one expects a vacancy to arise at the top of the party soon but that is not the point. Boris’s popularity is in any case too peculiar to the capital to be replicated at a national level. He is not a future leader; he is a living taunt directed at the current one, a vehicle for Conservatives to wound the Prime Minister without flagrant disloyalty. Cheering their London winner is the sporting way Tories call Cameron a loser.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue

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How can Labour break the Osborne supremacy?

The Conservative hegemony is deeply embedded - but it can be broken, says Ken Spours.

The Conservative Party commands a majority not just in the House of Commons, but also in the wider political landscape. It holds the political loyalty of expanding and powerful voting constituencies, such as the retired population and private sector businesses and their workers. It is dominant in English politics outside the largest urban centres, and it has ambitions to consolidate its position in the South West and to move into the “Northern Powerhouse”. Most ambitiously, it aims to detach irreversibly the skilled working classes from allegiance to the Labour Party, something that was attempted by Thatcher in the 1980s. Its goal is the building of new political hegemonic bloc that might be termed the Osborne supremacy, after its chief strategist.

The new Conservative hegemony is not simply based on stealing Labour’s political clothes or co-opting the odd political figure, such as Andrew Adonis; it runs much deeper and has been more than a decade the making. While leading conservative thinkers have not seriously engaged with the work of Antonio Gramsci, they act as if they have done. They do this instinctively, although they also work hard at enacting political domination.

 Adaptiveness through a conservative ‘double shuffle’

A major source of the new Conservative hegemony has been its fundamental intellectual political thinking and its adaptive nature. The intellectual foundations were laid in the decades of Keysianism when free market thinkers, notably Hayak and Friedman, pioneered neo-liberal thinking that would burst onto the political scene in Reagan/Thatcher era.  Despite setbacks, following the exhaustion of the Thatcherite political project in the 1990s, it has sprung back to life again in a more malleable form. Its strengths lie not only in its roots in a neo-liberal economy and state, but in a conservative ‘double shuffle’: the combining of neo-Thatcherite economics and social and civil liberalism, represented by a highly flexible and cordial relationship between Osborne and Cameron.  

 Right intellectual and political resources

The Conservative Party has also mobilised an integrated set of highly effective political and intellectual resources that are constantly seeking new avenues of economic, technological, political and social development, able to appropriate the language of the Left and to summon and frame popular common sense. These include well-resourced Right think tanks such as Policy Exchange; campaigning attack organisations, notably, the Taxpayers Alliance; a stratum of websites (e.g. ConservativeHome) and bloggers linked to the more established rightwing press that provide easy outlets for key ideas and stories. Moreover, a modernized Conservative Parliamentary Party provides essential political leadership and is highly receptive to new ideas.

 Very Machiavellian - conservative coercion and consensus

No longer restrained by the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives have also opted for a strategy of coercion to erode the remaining political bastions of the Left with proposed legislation against trade unions, attacks on charities with social missions, reform of the Human Rights Act, and measures to make it more difficult for trade unionists to affiliate to the Labour Party. Coupled with proposed boundary changes and English Votes for English Laws (Evel) in the House of Commons, these are aimed at crippling the organisational capacity of Labour and the wider Left.  It is these twin strategies of consensus and coercion that they anticipate will cohere and expand the Conservative political bloc – a set of economic, political and social alliances underpinned by new institutional ‘facts on the ground’ that aims to irrevocably shift the centre of political gravity.

The strengths and limits of the Conservative political bloc

In 2015 the conservative political bloc constitutes an extensive and well-organised array of ‘ramparts and earthworks’ geared to fighting successful political and ideological ‘wars of position’ and occasional “wars of manoeuvre”. This contrasts sharply with the ramshackle political and ideological trenches of Labour and the Left, which could be characterised as fragmented and in a state of serious disrepair.

The terrain of the Conservative bloc is not impregnable, however, having potential fault lines and weaknesses that might be exploited by a committed and skillful adversary. These include an ideological approach to austerity and shrinking the state that will hit their voting blocs; Europe; a social ‘holding pattern’ and dependence on the older voter that fails to tap into the dynamism of a younger and increasingly estranged generation and, crucially, vulnerability to a new economic crisis because the underlying systemic issues remain unresolved.

 Is the Left capable of building an alternative political bloc?

The answer is not straightforward.  On the one hand, Corbynism is focused on building and energizing a committed core and historically may be recognized as having saved the Labour Party from collapse after a catastrophic defeat in May. The Core may be the foundation of an effective counter bloc, but cannot represent it.  A counter-hegemony will need to be built by reaching out around new vision of a productive economy; a more democratic state that balances national leadership and local discretion (a more democratic version of the Northern Powerhouse); a new social alliance that really articulates the idea of ‘one nation’ and an ability to represent these ideas and visions in everyday, common-sense language. 

 If the Conservatives instinctively understand political hegemony Labour politicians, with one or two notable exceptions, behave as though they have little or no understanding of what is actually going on.  If they hope to win in future this has to change and a good start would be a collective sober analysis of the Conservative’s political and ideological achievements.

This is an extract from The Osborne Supremacy, a new pamphlet by Compass.

Ken Spours is a Professor at the IoE and was Convener of the Compass Education Inquiry. The final report of the Compass Education Inquiry, Big Education can be downloaded here.