Nearly 12 years since it came to power, and more than two years into its incarnation under Boris Johnson, what is this Conservative government for? The current administration, like the Cameron and May governments before it, seems likely to be remembered for what happened to it rather than what it made happen. Though the Labour Party has spent a decade levelling the charge of ideological vandalism against the Tories, the better accusation would be to say that they wanted nothing other than to occupy office.
There is, of course, a major exception to the critique of intellectual emptiness. Brexit will be one of the two things that anyone remembers from this decade-and-a-bit of Tory hegemony. Brexit is David Cameron’s legacy and Theresa May’s fate. For a long while, Brexit consumed the resources of proper administration. Now, the process is almost done. The withdrawal agreement gained royal assent on 23 January 2020, almost two years ago, and all nine of the Brexit-related bills that established the new dispensation have passed through parliament.
The other defining period of the past decade will, of course, be the pandemic. In the same month the Conservatives were re-elected in 2019, the first outbreak of Covid-19 was discovered. From that moment on, conventional public policy became an afterthought. Of all the government departments, the Treasury has the fairest claim to have been consumed by the pandemic, and the best case to make for its imaginative response. It will be intriguing to see if Rishi Sunak emerges this year to express his view of the world in signature tax policy reforms. Perhaps it is time for the real Chancellor to stand up – somebody in this government needs to. A series of airy pledges about life outside the European Union being better than life inside it will not generate the gratitude needed to win again.
Conservatives of an older vintage wear their beliefs lightly. They are pragmatic and flexible, not rigidly ideological. There is plenty of wisdom in this disposition but it can easily tip over into inertia. The Johnson government has a distinctly non-conservative disdain for due process. In the bills to redraw parliamentary boundaries and introduce voter identification, it shows a stronger regard for its own survival than it does for good policy. But, on the bigger questions facing the country, this administration is more conventional than it looks, precisely because it wants so little.
Its defining mission is supposed to be levelling up. A £3.6bn Towns Fund was announced in 2019 but it is still not clear what it is for. Michael Gove, the only policy brain in town, is hunkered down in the new Levelling Up department with Andy Haldane, the former chief economist at the Bank of England, trying to make sense of the idea. The promised white paper is already late, which is a clue to how difficult it must be to draft. The inequality of prosperity between regions in a globalised economy has such deep roots, grown over so long a period, that it is a fond hope to suppose it can be corrected by one white paper, even one authored by two such fertile brains.
But the levelling up work, when it comes, will at least be something rather than nothing. Elsewhere across Whitehall, there is very little going on. Nothing has happened in Gove’s old bailiwick of education since he left in 2014. Some extra money is promised – £4.3bn more for schools in real terms – but there is no real sense of what it is meant to buy.
This pattern is repeated in healthcare, where Johnson’s administration has become a cash machine. Frightened of appearing mean, the government is attaching no serious programme of reform to its spending commitments. It is, no doubt, a good thing that nurse maintenance bursaries were restored in December 2019 and that there has been a change to the pensions taper for clinicians, but this is so small-bore. In 2018 an extra £20.5bn in funding for NHS England by 2023-24 was announced, but no government could have avoided that commitment. It’s necessary housekeeping, but far from the productivity revolution needed.
The same is partly true with respect to climate policy. The £5.2bn allocated to flood defences is something any government would have done; so, too, the drive to increase energy production from offshore wind. But this government has at least embraced the environmental mission with alacrity, strengthening legally binding targets on the route to achieving net zero emissions by 2050. It will be interesting to see if Johnson remains committed to his climate crusade now that the essay crisis of Glasgow’s Cop26 summit has passed.
In welfare, however, the gothic folly of Universal Credit is acquiring more gargoyles. An extra £1bn has been allocated to social care, but whether the reform plan will survive dissent on the Tory benches is doubtful. More to the party’s taste is the boilerplate right-wing nastiness of the Home Secretary, who claims it as a cachet that the points-based immigration system has made it harder to settle in Britain.
The sum of all these parts isn’t much. This, in the end, is what underpins the fall in Johnson’s ratings. He could more easily shrug off the Westminster lockdown parties if he was able to point to the ways his government is improving the nation. But he can’t, and in the absence of policy, the Conservative Party becomes the prisoner of the Prime Minister’s behaviour. That is a very uncomfortable position to be in.
[see also: Boris Johnson is finally out of luck]
This article appears in the 05 Jan 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Johnson's Last Chance