Last night, on 14 December, 96 Tory MPs voted to defeat a deadly disease with an ideology. In defence of the right of boozed-up people to spread Covid-19 across the club dancefloors of England, they publicly destroyed Boris Johnson’s credibility as Prime Minister.
In the worst-case scenario, Johnson loses the North Shropshire by-election on 16 December, the Cabinet Secretary Simon Case finds evidence that the No 10 Christmas parties last year broke the law and hands the case over to the Metropolitan Police, and Christopher Geidt, the standards adviser who investigated Johnson’s flat refurbishment, resigns – presumably claiming that Johnson lied to parliament, which would itself be a resignation issue for the PM.
But even the best-case scenario for Johnson does not look good. Last night showed that – in the middle of the gravest public health crisis for a century – the Conservative Party does not have the will or interest to put the common good over the ideology of selfishness that galvanises them each day.
The arguments of the rebel Tory MPs simply echoed the mythologies that the plebeian far-right has been propagating for months: that vaccines don’t stop the disease spreading; that – for 40 hardcore Tory individualists such as Esther McVey and Scott Benton – neither do masks; that restrictions on the right to spread the disease are akin to Nazism; that “the economy” must come before the health and wellbeing of elderly, disabled and vulnerable people – as if the economy itself were made up of bank accounts and company registration certificates, not humans.
The instinctive Tory opposition to lockdowns, and the embrace of “herd immunity” as the sole strategy to contain Covid-19, flows from three conceits that have become core to conservative ideology.
The first – originally espoused by Johnson himself in his February 2020 Greenwich speech – is that Brexit makes Britain invincible. Nothing, even a global pandemic, can prevent our meteoric return to greatness. Though Johnson was quickly disabused of this idea, by Dominic Cummings among others, it remains the loudly spoken assumption of many right-wing conservatives. The success of the vaccination programme (touted by xenophobes as only possible because of Brexit) lulled large parts of conservative England into thinking there could be, and would be, no more restrictions on movement, behaviour or work.
The second conceit is that economic austerity remains possible and desirable, even in the face of a major crisis such as the pandemic. With the UK’s debt at over £2trn, and still needing to deliver billions in electoral bribes to northern English towns as part of the “levelling up” agenda, any further furloughs, or Universal Credit hikes, or improvements in sick pay have been ruled immoral in the Tory mind. There must be spending cuts and tax rises in short order, and no further hits to economic growth caused by working from home.
Thirdly, in the face of the greatest peacetime mobilisation of public resources, and concomitant restrictions on civil liberties, conservatism persists in demanding that the state be small and unintrusive. These are not consistent libertarians: the MPs who rebelled on 14 December have already voted enthusiastically to criminalise asylum seekers, shipping them to detention camps in a “safe third state” (reportedly Albania), and to force Britain’s electorate to carry compulsory ID on polling day.
They are, however, consistent libertarians on their own behalf. Rules that apply to others shall not apply to them. That’s why, last year, when law-abiding people were stuck in their own homes, forbidden to associate in any way, numerous groups of entitled Tories held illegal Christmas parties, took photos, and joked about how to lie their way out of it.
Unfortunately, none of these attitudes is the preserve of a few MPs, advisers and hedge fund groupies. They are widely held by a minority of British society, and underpinned by a deep psychological fear.
The most succinct summation of that fear was displayed by their counterparts in Austria last month, when 40,000 right-wing voters paraded through Vienna behind a banner saying: “Control your borders, not your people.”
Modern right-wing populists want an authoritarian state, but always aimed at someone else: the refugee in the dinghy, the Pakistani postal voter, the Extinction Rebellion protester, the criminal whose father came from Jamaica. It is the “other” who must have their rights curtailed, their dignity smashed, their image besmirched by stereotypes.
There are those from whom having their own rights reduced is anathema. They will vote for anyone who promises to cut public spending, but gladly join the queue at the local A&E with a sprained ankle, loudly complaining about the nationalities of the people in front of them.
So the Tory rebellion was not manufactured in the tearooms of Westminster. It is a real expression of the radicalised political force that has been driving politics in England since at least 2014: selfish, nationalist individualism. It has grasped – and squeezed to death – three Conservative prime ministers in a row, and shows no sign of remitting.
David Cameron realised he was sitting on a time bomb of resentment – not just against the European Union but human rights law – and he tried to defuse Brexit both with a referendum and a promise to scrap the Human Rights Act. Theresa May thought she could assuage the mass Tory desire for self-destruction by delivering Brexit and doubling down on austerity. She too was sacrificed.
And now it’s Johnson’s turn. The tragedy for the mass base of right-wing populism is that they never get to choose who leads them. Johnson chose them, not the other way around. And he’s not really one of them. While they are happy to receive a billion here and there for the local bus station, thanks to Johnson’s breezy approach to public finance, they cannot reconcile themselves to governance by scientific advice.
So they must soon choose someone else. But it won’t be easy. Because beyond Johnson there are very few people in Tory politics malleable enough to embody all the prejudices of the mass base in the pursuit of power.
Sunak wants a small state; Patel wants migrants in detention camps; David Frost wants to renege on the Brexit deal; Liz Truss wants a rerun of Thatcherism; Raab wants to exit the European Convention on Human Rights. Fine: these are the fantasies that haunt conservative minds.
But no prime minister can avoid the truth: ideologies don’t defeat viruses. Johnson, for all his sloth and gluttony, learned this on the job and in the hardest way possible: by almost dying from it.
If Johnson is replaced in short order, whoever takes over will have the same problem: they will be reliant on Labour votes to maintain a semblance of competent governance on the most pressing threat to our security and safety.
Keir Starmer was right to back Johnson unconditionally. We don’t know, at this moment, whether we’ll be dealing with a stressed NHS in January or, in the vulnerable rural and coastal areas, a collapsing one. Starmer erred on the side of caution, even reversing Labour’s principled aversion to compulsory vaccination for NHS staff, and facing down union pressure.
The rationale was clearly put by new shadow health secretary Wes Streeting: if tens of thousands of NHS staff test positive for Covid-19 between now and spring, you can kiss the A&E system goodbye, no matter how severe or mild the Omicron variant turns out to be.
So we approach the Christmas break as we entered the last one: with a government in self-inflicted crisis. The basic problem with modern conservatism is that, chemically speaking, it’s more like a suspension than a solution. Its constituent particles – libertarianism, xenophobia and austerity – do not merge easily into an organic whole. Unless the vessel is repeatedly shaken, the elements tend to separate over time.
For two years Johnson held it all together. But he no longer can.
[See also: How Boris Johnson can save his premiership]