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3 September 2020

Where will Boris Johnson’s next parliamentary defeat come from?

There's one issue coming down the line with the potential to unite Conservative malcontents more than any other.

By Ailbhe Rea

Where will Boris Johnson’s next parliamentary defeat come from? It’s a question worth asking as Conservative MPs return to parliament this week, in just as fractious a mood as when they left for the holidays.  

Before recess, backbenchers were increasingly irritated at having to expend their political capital in defence of unpopular moves by this government, from the Dominic Cummings affair to free school meals, which saw their efforts to defend the government’s position wasted when it eventually U-turned. They felt in the dark, cut out of governmental decision-making and unsupported by Downing Street when they went out to fend for the government in their constituencies. As I wrote in June, the No 10 operation had effectively replaced traditional feedback from MPs with daily polling, but with a detrimental impact on internal party relations. 

These problems only worsened over the summer, despite many in the parliamentary party trying to put their concerns on ice over the holidays in an effort to switch off before what is expected to be a difficult parliamentary term. But now, after a summer of U-turns, Conservative MPs have returned to Westminster without much political capital left to expend on unpopular decisions, and in the full awareness that there will be plenty of those in the pipeline.

“It’s pretty fractious,” says one senior Tory MP of the mood within the parliamentary party. “But it isn’t in tribes. It isn’t just blue-collar Tories or the shires Tories who are alienated. It’s everyone arguing about everything. You could say the party has become very atomised.” 

This is the crucial point to consider in the months to come. Conservative MPs are pretty much universally alienated by months of tricky decisions to defend and embarrassing U-turns, but they are coming at things with different interests. Whether they unite in discontent over one particular issue will be the question that determines how smooth a ride Johnson has over the next few months. 

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The issue most likely to cause a rebellion in the new parliamentary term is, perhaps improbably, planning reforms. It is hardly the biggest challenge the government faces in the coming months in terms of the big national picture (it must also deal with the triple challenge of coronavirus, the economic crisis and Brexit, with all of the possible tax rises, cuts, legislative logjams, controversies, and local lockdowns these may bring). But, for all of the internal disputes (or “massive arguments”, as one Tory puts it) that have already begun over plans for the budget in November, it is the internal politics of the Conservative Party that will see planning reforms, a relatively small aspect of the government’s economic programme, causing potentially the biggest upheaval in the months ahead.

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Earlier this summer, the government unveiled its plan for the “biggest shake-up of planning since World War Two”. The broad aim is to radically simplify the planning system in England, making it easier and more predictable for planning permission to be given to new developments, therefore making it more difficult for councils to block individual proposals. It is an area where the government’s pre-pandemic economic agenda aligns with its Covid recovery plans: the hope is that the changes will kick-start economic activity, while the algorithm that allocates targets for every area in England looks set to address discrepancies between areas in terms of affordability and current rates of housebuilding.

Therein lies the problem. The reforms have prompted concerns from traditional shires Conservatives and their colleagues in the London suburbs: their seats are to be set the highest targets of new homes to build, which they worry would fundamentally change the character of their desirable, leafy constituencies, alienating their voter base in the process. One MP in such a seat describes the proposals as simply a “non-starter”. The government has always known it would take a lot of political capital to ram these changes through, but, with a majority of 80 and a broadly happy parliamentary party, it didn’t seem an impossible task.

This government is often criticised for a lack of conviction, led by a Prime Minister with few deeply-held principles: the man who famously wrote two speeches before deciding where he stood on the Brexit debate. But this is a rare example of the government being prepared to drive through something unpopular with an eye to longer-term outcomes and the principles it hopes to be remembered for: a disruptive, radical spirit and a “levelling up” agenda with a lasting impact on the UK economy. The objections from backbenchers to this early attempt to do so expose the tension inherent in “levelling up”: a programme that sees expensive, desirable areas become more affordable and accessible by people of lower incomes is alienating to plenty of Tory voters and disruptive to the Conservatives’ very voter base at a seat-by-seat level. Somewhere in these concerns from backbenchers there’s the germ of a profound problem with levelling up: if this government “levels up” too well, will traditional Conservative heartlands still be Tory?    

But these aren’t the only Conservative MPs with worries over the plans. Some Conservatives, who happily dismiss their parliamentary colleagues as “NIMBYs” for their objections to the plans, have profound concerns about the quality of the housing that these reforms will produce. If new areas become built up with potentially very low-quality housing, they worry that the government will be creating the “slums of tomorrow” that will amount to a sort of “social cleansing”, as one senior Tory puts it. Indeed, these reforms are almost universally unpopular: the Labour Party, homelessness charities, architectural boards have expressed their objections, while non-profit organisations raise concerns over the potential for corruption and lobbying with the new rules.

A consultation on the proposals has begun and will conclude at the end of October. It will be a tricky period for the government, coinciding with the end of the furlough scheme and the final run-up to Rishi Sunak’s budget. And the problem is that, after months of U-turns, Conservative MPs have reasonable grounds to believe that with a bit of pressure, they can change the government’s position. Watch out for the issue that could well unite the malcontents and hand Boris Johnson his next parliamentary defeat.