In October 1980, as unemployment surged in the UK, Margaret Thatcher declared in her speech to the Conservative Party Conference: “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” She proved true to her word, refusing to abandon her monetarist policies even as joblessness rose further to three million.
Successive Tory leaders have since sought to claim the mantle of conviction. But Boris Johnson cannot credibly do so. In a short period, his government has become defined by its propensity for U-turns.
On 13 August, Mr Johnson declared of the English A-levels: “Let’s be in no doubt about it, the exam results that we’ve got today are robust, they’re good, they’re dependable for employers.” Four days later, following outrage over the downgrading of 39 per cent of marks, his government announced that the algorithm-moderated results would not stand.
In the same week, the government extended the ban on rental evictions just two days before it was due to elapse on 23 August. Similar U-turns were performed over free school meals for pupils during the summer holidays, the NHS surcharge on migrant health workers, mandatory face masks, and the introduction of the Covid-19 lockdown. All governments are forced to respond to changed circumstances and to popular pressure, but the array of reversals is symptomatic of profound flaws. Despite its 80-seat parliamentary majority, Mr Johnson’s administration already appears strangely fragile.
The Prime Minister’s slapdash style and lack of attention to detail are of little surprise: they defined his time as mayor of London and later as foreign secretary. The government’s failings, however, are not his alone. Mr Johnson is unaided by one of the most mediocre cabinets in postwar history. Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary, who exhibits no passion for his brief, should never have been appointed to his role. But the substandard Conservative frontbench is no accident. Principled and competent MPs, such as former cabinet ministers Rory Stewart, David Gauke and Justine Greening, were exiled from the party for voting to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Today’s frontbenchers were selected based on their political loyalty rather than their ability – and it shows.
Yet even if Mr Johnson’s government were more competent, it would still, as Stephen Bush writes elsewhere in this issue, lack purpose. Under Mr Johnson’s leadership, the Conservatives won their biggest general election victory since 1987, and vanquished the Labour left, but the Prime Minister has no overarching vision for his country. The UK has left the EU as promised – and is due to soon leave the single market and the customs union – but to what end?
In the 1970s, as the pillars of the postwar Keynesian settlement crumbled, the right used the crisis as an opportunity for philosophical renewal. The early Thatcherites were supported by an intellectual network of think tanks, historians, economists and philosophers such as Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. Yet today, faced with a pandemic and the worst economic recession on record, there is no comparable attempt to anatomise the crisis.
If there is a mission for the Conservatives, it is to rehabilitate the state as an economic actor and rebuild the public realm after a decade of austerity. But the government has made no consistent attempt to do so. Despite the threat of mass unemployment, and of a second wave of Covid-19, the furlough scheme will be ended for all sectors in October. By contrast, Angela Merkel’s German government is expected to extend its job retention scheme (which subsidises employees working reduced hours) from 12 months to 24. Mr Johnson’s Conservatives, however, appear willing to embrace the “creative destruction” of the market.
In some respects, the Covid-19 crisis has obscured the void of ideas at the heart of government. Even before the pandemic, and for all his rhetoric about “levelling up” and reducing regional inequalities, Mr Johnson seemed overwhelmed by the responsibility and the hard grind of power. The risk of his premiership is that, having pined for so long for the top job, he appears to have little conception of what to do with it.