What will it take for voters to finally tire of rule by the Conservative Party? This is a question that has vexed many of us during the past decade. Things have frequently seemed hopeless. As recently as two years ago the press was awash with confident predictions of a further decade of Conservative rule.
Yet suddenly it feels as if the Conservative Party has run out of steam. Much as during the dog days of the Conservative governments of the 1990s, scandals are emerging thick and fast. There was the Owen Paterson corruption affair. The Christmas gatherings at Downing Street at the height of lockdown. The North Shropshire by-election. The only thing missing is a good sex scandal.
As a government, you must know you’re in trouble when you become the butt of jokes on anodyne television entertainment shows such as I’m a Celebrity. Or when you’re booed by darts fans – hardly a demographic that can be denounced by the right’s culture warriors as the “woke elite”.
Boris Johnson’s ideological flexibility has been one of his political strengths up to now. Indeed, the Prime Minister won a thumping victory in 2019 by winning over parts of the country that were long assumed to be Labour fiefdoms. Johnson’s “levelling-up” agenda recognised that many people in the UK do not want “the state off their backs”, as Thatcherite backbenchers such as Steve Baker would have us believe. This was especially true in Britain’s former industrial areas, places that have for decades been benighted by deprivation and a gnawing lack of opportunity.
Yet many of Johnson’s backbenchers are decidedly uncomfortable with the Tory party’s new electoral base. Or at least, they recoil from the ideological adaptability required to sustain it. They may have climbed into power in 2019 on the back of a manifesto that promised to “create a fair society” and ensure that “work will always pay”; yet the ideological flavour of their politics is libertarian: a creed that has even less support in the UK than the far left. And now that Johnson’s ability to win elections is losing its shine – a slew of polls have given Labour its biggest lead over the Tories since the last hurrah of the New Labour era – these backbenchers are growing restless.
The Chancellor Rishi Sunak is arguably the favourite to succeed Johnson, should the latter be deposed. The Chancellor has had an easy ride up to now because he possesses the superficial qualities that impress many members of Britain’s media class. He is “Dishy Rishi”, the country’s “Dr Feelgood” who artfully steered the economic ship through the darkest days of the pandemic. He is an adept television performer who knows how to drop a catchy soundbite. And if nothing else, his ascent to the top job would provide a slicker antidote to the bumbling performances offered by Johnson.
Most importantly of all, he is ideologically in tune with the Tory party’s libertarian backbenchers. Feted by sections of the media for the economic largesse he bestowed on furloughed workers during lockdown, Sunak is in actuality an economic liberal who, when left to his own devices, has made the wrong call at almost every turn during the pandemic. Indeed, it was Sunak’s £500m “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme that drove infections prior to last winter’s catastrophic second Covid wave. It was also Sunak who invited lockdown-sceptic scientists to persuade the Prime Minister to delay the decision to introduce another lockdown – a move that cost thousands of lives. More recently, Sunak has been chafing at the cost of the UK’s vaccine booster roll-out.
Sunak is an economic liberal who is being touted as the next Tory leader at a time when, all around the world, the flavour of economics that he represents is being hammered at the ballot box. In Britain, neoliberalism’s pseudo-meritocratic promise was undone, in part, by the grotesque concentrations of wealth it generated. The last four decades have seen market dogma given a free hand in the UK – but who today can argue that material success is a product of hard work, when owning a home depends as much on inheritance as hours worked?
In order to take Johnson’s libertarian rivals seriously, one must also be wilfully blind to the manner in which the British people – and what the Tory back-bench MP Joy Morrissey last week derided as “a public health socialist state” – have comported themselves during the pandemic. The NHS vaccine roll-out, public support for protecting the elderly and vulnerable during lockdown, the widespread appreciation shown towards hard-pressed healthcare workers – all encapsulate values that are starkly at odds with the corruption, the grift and the arrogant and repeated violation of the rules by a government which had imposed those same rules on everyone else (not to mention attempts by backbenchers to generate a phoney culture war over masks and vaccination).
Electoral success is built on compromise; yet the hubris it generates often prompts a retreat to one’s ideological comfort zone. Which of course requires a degree of historical amnesia about how you won in the first place.
Historical amnesia is precisely what is required to view Sunak as the potential saviour of the Tory party’s wobbling electoral prospects. The reek of Tory sleaze is once again in the air. But going back to the future – to the failed doctrines that have produced so much political upheaval in recent years – won’t save the party.
[See also: Boris Johnson is finally out of luck]