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Boris Johnson’s government has lost all sense of direction – but so have his Tory opponents

On both sides of the no-confidence vote, there is incoherence and confused messaging over what to do next.

By Zoë Grünewald

Boris Johnson has thanked his colleagues (all 59 per cent of them) for their support and told his cabinet it was time to “draw a line” under the events of the past week and get back to business as usual – enacting their “fundamental” Tory economic policies of tax cuts and reforms.

Sounds like a valiant attempt to move on, but what does it mean in practice? Yesterday, the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, compared the NHS to obsolete Blockbuster video-rental stores “in the age of Netflix”, presumably demonstrating the need for modernisation in the health service. When pressed on what that really meant, a government spokesperson couldn’t give much detail – the plan is just to “dramatically improve productivity”. Considering Netflix lost 200,000 subscribers and $50bn from its market value back in April, and is heading for increased government regulation, it’s a slightly strange analogy – even if you ignore the obvious differences between a video-streaming service and life-saving national healthcare provision.

On Monday, Jesse Norman, the former financial secretary to the Treasury, wrote a letter of no confidence that accused Johnson’s government of lacking a “sense of mission” with “no long-term plan”. He pointed to Johnson’s prioritisation of wedge-issues, creating “political and cultural dividing lines” that merely advantage the Prime Minister, and charged him with ignoring pressing economic concerns. Norman has a point: where the major events of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine gifted Johnson’s leadership a sense of direction, now, as reported Covid rates decline and inflation continues to surge, Johnson is starting to flounder.

One Tory ex-minister, who voted for Hunt in the 2019 leadership election, told me the political gamble the Conservatives made when voting for Johnson was about putting “perceived electoral gain” ahead of “principles”. While this choice has now become a serious problem for the party, none of Johnson’s colleagues has provided a viable alternative vision. As Andrew writes in this week’s cover story, the rebels didn’t offer up any potential leader who could unite all factions of his Tory opposition – the old, the new, the traditional and the neo-liberals. He quotes one minister: “It’s as if they’re asking us to jump out of an aircraft without a parachute… and then knit one on the way down.”

Andrew explains just how complex the political makeup of the Tory party is, and how difficult that makes building a coherent consensus. No one knows if Johnson’s populism is a better approach than the centrist leadership of rivals, such as Hunt or Tugendhat. Even if their leadership could manoeuvre the country through the cost-of-living crisis, would it be an election winner? The same ex-minister told me, “Jeremy most certainly would not have won the incredible majority achieved in 2019, but the party and government would not be in the mess it is in now had he been elected.”

So, what’s next for the Tory party? For Johnson’s government, policies. Whatever they may be and whoever may come up with them. For Johnson’s rivals, it’s probably time to get organised and figure out what they want, and above all else, just what it is that the Conservatives stand for.

This piece first appeared in the Morning Call newsletter; subscribe here.

[See also: Who will replace Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader?]

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