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The Tories’ fatal attraction to Boris Johnson

As in 1978, we are approaching the end of an era as the Conservatives flounder before events too big to control.

By Andrew Marr

The Tory party splits, and narrowly plumps to keep Boris Johnson. Wonderful for the opposition, frightful for the country. It is great news for Labour and the other anti-Conservative parties. With the Commons Privileges Committee investigating whether Johnson misled parliament, two by-elections to come, and the next scandal – for there will be a next scandal – this is the kind of long, tortuous, downward, zig-zagging slither that shreds governing parties.

So long as Giant Haystacks remains in place, those insurgent knights, Sir Keir and Sir Ed, barely need to come up with new policies, or biting lines of attack. They just need to point their fingers, and go, “Look!”

All this is awful for the country for similar reasons. At just the time we need a way past our economic and social perils, authority at the top and a cabinet with ambition and clarity, we have a paralysed blob of a government.

I am not saying those Tory MPs who voted for Johnson, the 211, were behaving entirely venally (though for sure, some were) or irrationally. Had he been defenestrated on Monday, then by Wednesday we would have seen an anarchic struggle between Tory factions that could have gone on for months. Voters might have ended up being even more infuriated by the feuding than they are by Johnson.

Before the vote, one minister complained to me of the rebels: “They don’t offer any alternative proposition for us to examine – any plan – any credible, uniting alternative leader. 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.”He had a point. The more consensual, more personally respectable challengers, such as Jeremy Hunt, Penny Mordaunt and Tom Tugendhat, would never have won the backing of the Brexiteers and populists. In turn, cabinet contenders such as Liz Truss are anathema to Tory moderates looking for a new start. Giant Haystacks, smirking in triumph, may indeed have been the last unifying force of post-Brexit Conservatism.

But he no longer leads what you might call a party. True, the 144 rebels are not themselves a coherent group. There were around ten different putative leadership campaigns being organised. Part of the story of this week is two chaotic forces colliding, almost by accident. No 10’s whipping operation was ludicrously weak. But among the rebels there was no central command, no “plot”. Had there been, the letters would not have accumulated until after the by-elections on 23 June, when Johnson would have been most vulnerable. When the confidence vote was announced, senior anti-Johnson Tories were shaking their heads and swearing in frustration.

[See also: Confidence vote results show Boris Johnson is far from safe]

Illustration by André Carrilho

Now Johnson has what we can reasonably call the Brexit Party: placeholders, loyalists, a few ideologues and those who feel they’re only at Westminster thanks to him. But this group does not have a parliamentary majority. Then there are the dozens of Tory traditionalists, outraged by his behaviour and more or less beyond his reach. To be sure, they have no kind of majority either. Indeed, we’re now in the odd situation where, under a nominally Conservative PM, the biggest coherent voting bloc in the Commons is the Labour Party. Which (yes, yes)… has no majority.

How, in these circumstances, is Johnson going to build his new agenda? He vaguely promises “conservative measures” such as tax cuts, just days after his Chancellor (rightly) embraced Labour’s policy of a windfall tax on energy firms. With the public finances assailed by demands from every direction, where does Johnson plan to cut government spending?

What else? We are promised the return of imperial measures. I am surprised pints, furlongs and ounces did not appear in the Jubilee cavalcade, waving from buses. But beyond that, it’s slim pickings. Abolition of the factory acts? Compulsory wearing of claret corduroys in county towns? The ducking stool?

No, the sad truth is that the best political parallel for 2022 is looking less like the previous Conservative leadership contests and more like 1978. I’m not just talking about the inflation rate, which stood at 8 per cent then (lower than today’s 9 per cent). Nor the waves of strikes, among BBC staff, bakers, rail workers and lorry drivers, which would culminate in the “winter of discontent”. Nope. This is 1978 in the sense of an era ending, the premonition of a change in national direction caused by a growing belief that the government is floundering before events too big to steer through.

Then it was consensual, corporatist socialism that was flailing; today it is post-Brexit, post-Thatcher conservatism. The challenges 44 years later are very different. The sense of drift and a broken leadership is not.

Jim Callaghan put it memorably when talking to his adviser Bernard Donoughue during the 1979 general election. Donoughue tried to cheer him up, saying the polls were turning in his direction. Callaghan replied: “You know, there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics. It then does not matter what you say or do. There is a shift in what the public wants…”

Such changes can be heralded by apparently tiny moments – in our case, perhaps, the booing of Boris and Carrie Johnson at St Paul’s last week when they arrived for the service of thanksgiving for the Queen’s Jubilee.

Callaghan was unlike Johnson in almost every way one can think of. He was a former naval officer, exemplary in his private life, not posh, but hugely experienced in government, and frank about his own shortcomings: “I let the country down” was his blank verdict in the darkest moments of his tenure.

Like Johnson, though, he was dealing with economic turmoil apparently beyond the scope of the instruments at his disposal, or his imagination. Then, heavily taxed, plagued by industrial action and with unemployment at around 1.5 million, Britain was seen as the sick man of Europe. The compromising, consensus-seeking politics of the 1970s had run out of answers. National optimism was draining away.

Today’s immediate problems were triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and Vladimir Putin’s war. But, as in 1978, strategic economic weakness at home is a big part of the story. Now, we have something close to full employment – a big difference – but again, a comparatively low-growth, low-productivity economy with falling real wages and a Treasury reactively battling events.

These are deep-seated problems. According to a report by the LSE last year, capital investment in Britain runs at 10 per cent of GDP, compared with an average of 13 per cent in the US, Germany and France. It blamed “low business investment, weak management and too few commercial patents”.

Brexit, remember, was supposed to unchain the UK economy; six years after the vote, the slender evidence so far suggests the opposite. The Office for National Statistics says that productivity fell 0.7 per cent in the first quarter of this year.

Unsurprisingly, given the impact of rising inflation on a low-wage economy, industrial action is on the rise again. We could yet see a summer of discontent.

The pound is falling. The Bank of America has warned sterling is in danger of becoming an “emerging market” currency, hit by falling growth and growing risks. Its strategist Kamal Sharma is worth quoting for an overseas view: “The challenges facing the Bank of England are unique, along with a supply dynamic that it remains wholly unwilling to discuss: Brexit… Hiking rates against a sharply slowing economy is never a good look for any currency.”

Tied philosophically to hard Brexit as tightly as Labour was in the 1970s to its version of Keynesianism, the government seems unable to think of a new way through. If Brexit is turning out to be more of a constipating opiate than an economic tonic, what’s left? A bonfire of planning laws? Try that in the “blue wall” of Tory shire seats…

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

One thoughtful member of the cabinet tells me that there is now a philosophical divide inside the government. On the one hand there are unregenerate free-market liberals who look to Margaret ThatcherRishi Sunak and his allies. On the other are Tory statists, including Johnson, who believe that only the power of the state can resolve some of the problems facing modern Britain.

There are certainly plenty of the latter. Another 1978 parallel is that so much of the nation’s structure seems so grimly shoddy. I recently mentioned NHS dentistry, the crisis in the courts and prisons, and the atrocious state of our rivers. I ought to have added the near collapse of service at the passport office, the chaos at airports, the gridlock at Dover and the prospect of getting around Britain this summer without the help of railways.

Of course, Callaghan’s government had no Commons majority. After the Lib-Lab pact ended in September 1978 it was hanging on by its fingernails. But is Johnson’s position so different? Is his authority defined by an 80-seat majority… or by 211 versus 148?

The story of his premiership has already been written. He will be defined by the belligerence of his tactics over Brexit; by the wisdom of his early support for Ukraine; and by the sloppy dishonesty of his management of No 10. This summer, the boil was supposed to be lanced. But the boil has refused, and the lancet has broken. No doubt he dreams of a final chapter – levelling up, a resolution to the unresolvable dilemma of the Northern Ireland protocol and another general election triumph. But looking at his atrocious poll ratings and broken party, that’s gone. Anyway, what happened on 6 June was about character; and you don’t resolve a question of character by drafting fresh legislation.

What next? In 1978, Thatcher was gestating a steely, revolutionary alternative. There’s hardly an equivalent today. Over the year ahead the hardest thinking will have to come from the opposition parties as the rest of us watch through our fingers the next slither-and-bump at Downing Street. Even for non-monarchists, the Platinum Jubilee was a poignant, painful reminder of who we can be. The optimism and the diversity of that radiant, beautifully produced concert; the cheerful, batty, cheesy goodwill of the parade; the repeated calls to service and duty… These are the springs, are they not, of a virtuous nostalgia, a Britishness that would have been perfectly recognisable back in 1978? We don’t like being divided. We don’t like being taken for fools. Oh, poor us.

This piece is the cover story of the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

[See also: Which Tory MPs rebelled against Boris Johnson?]

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This article appears in the 08 Jun 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Marked Man