One of the interesting features of the past decade of British politics is that though the political pattern has been one of continued Conservative electoral dominance – a voter coalition much better designed to win and hold power under first-past-the-post than any of its rivals in England and Wales; a steady increase in support at every election since returning to power in 2010; and a large majority at the 2019 general election – the past five years have been marked by Conservative political retreat.
The Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom is, at the least, under considerable threat. We have just reached the end of what would have been David Cameron’s second term as prime minister had the 2015 parliament gone as “planned”: the majority of the scheduled cuts to public spending in that period were abandoned.
And since Cameron departed the scene, no Conservative prime minister has successfully been re-elected. In addition, the record of right-wing policy achievement under Cameron – major and significant changes to large parts of the state, a programme of deep and painful cuts to expenditure, and of major tax relief to middle- and higher-earners – were not equalled by Theresa May, and it is far from clear that Boris Johnson, despite his far bigger majority, will embark on anything similar.
The disease that usually afflicts governments after they have been in power for a long time is that they become dominated by administrators and wonks, and lose their feeling for public opinion. The Conservatives seem to have the reverse problem: they are winning elections, and as far as the question of gaining seats is concerned, they are doing better in 2020 than they were in 2010.
But as far as the question of delivering small-c conservative or right-wing policies goes, they’re doing less well. And, a year into Johnson’s tenure as prime minister, that’s the question: is this the beginning of a successful period of right-wing government that changes the country, or is it just going to be more of the same failure and retreat that has characterised the post-Cameron Conservatives?
The handling of coronavirus doesn’t get us any closer to answering that question. Across the developed world, the levers policymakers have reached for have been similar, regardless of their left-right position: legally mandated lockdowns and wage subsidies to encourage people to stay at home. It’s not clear whether the UK’s delay in entering lockdown was due to specific failings by Johnson, broader problems of state capacity caused by a decade of public spending retrenchment, or poor advice from the scientific establishment.
But away from coronavirus, the reality is a government that is fond of combative rhetoric, but that spends most of its time in retreat. This is a government that is rhetorically committed to a US-UK trade deal, but can’t even defend the existing level of American participation in the provision of British healthcare. (It may be true to say, as the government insists, that neither agricultural standards nor the NHS are “on the table” in trade deals – but this has implications for the depth and extent of the trade deals the government will strike.)
The response to the coronavirus recession has been an unprecedented level of market intervention (even previous governments, which literally owned and ran some restaurants, didn’t hand out vouchers for them), whether through the “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme, or the exhortations for firms to unpick their home-working plans. Unlike the policy levers that the government opted for during lockdown, these are distinct and novel approaches that most other countries are not taking.
That reflects a broader timidity on tax-and-spend in general. Although the downturn has rendered the concerns about the government’s fiscal plans – which involved spending more than they brought in via taxation in a growing economy – somewhat redundant, it’s quite a major shift in how the Conservative Party operates.
One way to see this is that the government has become dominated by election strategists who know a great deal about winning elections and not very much about successfully implementing policy. Another way is that the Conservative Party is doing what it has historically always done, which is evolving in order to keep winning: shifting from being an economically and socially liberal party to what you might call a welfare-authoritarian one, such as Poland’s Law and Justice party (albeit, in the case of the British Conservatives, one in which generosity in welfare is largely restricted to the retired).
Of course, what has tended to distinguish periods of Conservative evolution as successful is the overall performance of the economy. That’s why Harold Macmillan is broadly seen as a successful Tory leader and Ted Heath as a failed one. The big known unknown is whether or not Johnsonian Conservativism really works in practice: if, at the end of five years, the economy is out of difficulty, the public won’t have been forcibly confronted with the hard choices Johnson has made a point of telling them don’t exist.
In many ways, coronavirus has delayed that reckoning: there were no hard trade-offs to be confronted in this year’s Budget because of the worsening economic picture. There will be no hard trade-offs in the next one either, and by that point we may be sufficiently close to an election that the budgets of 2022 and 2023 are similar exercises in can-kicking, too.
It’s possible that the fundamental questions about Johnson’s governing style will still be unanswered not just after a year as prime minister, but at the end of his first term, too.