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How the Tories lost their way

The new leader will struggle to regain control of a party still in the grip of Boris Johnson’s illiberal populism.

By David Gauke

It took the Conservatives at least 15 years to come to terms with the downfall of Margaret Thatcher, and in some respects they never have. The immediate consequence of her removal, however, was the party uniting behind its new leader, John Major, a surge in popularity and an unexpected general election win 17 months later, in 1992. The removal of Boris Johnson, a political lightweight in comparison, is unlikely to have such long-term ramifications, but the short-term prospects for the party look much less likely to be positive.

It is clear from the Tory leadership candidates’ television debates that they do not know what to say about their former leader. Johnson’s removal was, in the end, quick and brutal; Conservative ministers were no longer prepared to go out and defend No 10’s position on the controversy surrounding Christopher Pincher, when they knew it was unlikely to be true. A collective conclusion was reached that Johnson lacked the honesty to lead the country.

The deed having been done, most of the leadership candidates have been reluctant to be too critical of the Prime Minister. When asked about his trustworthiness, they have often in debates sought to change the subject and talk about his record. Kemi Badenoch announced that Johnson was “sometimes” honest, which is a rather low bar (“not absolutely everything he says is a lie” is hardly a robust defence). Tom Tugendhat’s best moment in the Channel 4 debate was answering the Johnson honesty question with a straightforward shake of the head.

[See also: Will Liz Truss’s tax cuts work?]

The evasiveness of those who served Johnson is not surprising. A wholehearted condemnation of Johnson’s character would be jarring for those who stuck with him through a multitude of scandals, even if some of them had decided they’d had enough by the end. Candidates are also seeking to appeal to a party membership of which a significant element regrets Johnson’s defenestration.

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Johnson was a problem for his predecessors as leader of the Conservative Party and he is likely to be one for his successor. They are likely to hope that he will quickly retire from parliament – losing the Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election would be a small price to pay – but this is not guaranteed. The evident bitterness from the Johnson camp towards the front-runner and former chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is not likely to dissipate if Sunak prevails – and Johnson knows how to play the role of the king over the water. One can easily imagine him turning up at October’s Conservative Party conference in Birmingham and shamelessly dominating the headlines.

Even if the relationship between the new prime minister and their successor begins on a cordial basis, there is still a strategic decision to be made by the occupant of No 10 on whether to disavow Johnson or, at least in part, rehabilitate him. The former would be unpopular with some in the party; the latter would risk contaminating the reputation of the new administration. The leadership election shows this will not be straightforward.

What is clear is that the parliamentary party doesn’t think much of Johnson’s cabinet choices. Only three of the eight MPs who met the nomination threshold in the leadership contest were full members of Johnson’s cabinets, and one of those was knocked out in the first round. For a party that’s been in office for 12 years, the absence of senior ministerial experience at the top is remarkable.

In part, this has been because of the high churn in ministers caused by Brexit and previous leadership changes. But it’s also to do with Johnson’s approach of choosing his cabinet based not on talent but on personal loyalty and enthusiasm for Brexit. Some of the untested candidates performed better than might be expected as hope triumphed over experience. At the very least, the new prime minister needs to ensure that capable Tories can raise their profiles this side of the general election.

The Conservatives are confused about the economy. Are they a low-tax party? Are they high-spending interveners? Are they fiscal conservatives, cautious about government borrowing? Johnson’s disregard for policy coherence meant that he could favour all of these approaches.

A combination of his bluster and the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic allowed him to get through three years without providing clarity. This was electorally convenient:  the coalition of voters who delivered his majority in 2019 has varying economic interests. But a row with his chancellor was brewing, as Sunak’s resignation letter, which cited basic disagreements on economic policy, showed. Now the leadership election will determine the direction of the party. Tax cuts or fiscal responsibility?

Whoever wins, a divide in economic philosophy will have been exposed at a time of intense pressure on living standards: soaring energy prices, higher interest rates, and real-terms cuts in public sector pay likely to lead to further industrial action. A new prime minister will have to make the case that the government’s response is well judged when it will be evident that many of their MPs disagree.

[See also: Tory diversity scuppers Labour’s white male hopefuls]

Illustration by Klawe Rzeczy

Rows over economic policy are not new, of course. In the 2005 David Cameron/David Davis leadership race, Cameron prioritised sound public finances over unfunded tax cuts. The membership backed Cameron, but he continued to receive criticism for his fiscal caution until the global financial crisis settled the matter by making it clear that substantial tax cuts were no longer affordable.

The circumstances in 2022 are different. The pressure to cut taxes during a cost-of-living crisis will be considerable, even if this would be a badly targeted response if the intention is to protect the poorest. Nor is it clear that a governing party in the second half of a parliament, trailing in the polls and out of the habit of thinking seriously about policy, is likely to make the long-term sustainability of the public finances its top priority. In the end, it will be the party membership who decide, but that membership has changed since 2005. It is not certain that the bright, slick, posh young fiscal conservative will win this time.

While economics may now split the 2019 Conservative coalition, it was Brexit that brought it together. Europe has been notable for its absence from the leadership campaigns. No candidate dare question the wisdom of leaving the EU, argue for measures to repair the damage caused, or even deviate from the policy of breaching international law by unilaterally repudiating the Northern Ireland protocol (even if some of the candidates will probably be content for the offending legislation to perish in the House of Lords). The long-standing debate within the Conservative Party about the UK’s relationship with the EU is over for now. The hard Brexiteers have won.

Nor is there a candidate willing to question the policy of deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda. Again, one wonders if some candidates would be happy to see the policy fail in the courts. (The attorney general, Suella Braverman, has argued that we need to leave the European Convention on Human Rights in order to pursue the Rwanda policy, which, by implication, suggests that the policy is in contravention of it. This is a curious argument to make given that, as attorney general, she has advised that the Rwanda policy is compatible with the convention.)

On social policy more widely, woe betide the candidate who might be portrayed as being on the “woke” side of any argument. Once upon a time, Conservative leaders would try to change perceptions of the party by saying something surprisingly liberal about the criminal justice system, the treatment of minorities, or the environment. All candidates have decided such an approach would be a vote-loser in this contest. It is a pity. Liz Truss, for example, has refreshingly sensible views on the need to reduce the prison population.

But this is not the mid-2000s. The Conservative Party became more populist in the era of Nigel Farage’s Ukip, not just because of Boris Johnson (he was more a symptom than a cause) but also because there were votes to be won by appealing to non-Conservatives with illiberal instincts. There is still a yearning – at least among some MPs within the parliamentary party – to be more professional, more thoughtful and more responsible. But few are willing to take the risks necessary to confront their party’s changed nature.

It is possible that new leadership could begin to reverse the Conservatives’ trajectory. But after a bruising leadership contest, with Johnson willing and able to cause further havoc and with a deepening economic crisis, it is difficult to imagine any leader being strong enough to pursue such a strategy. Boris Johnson may be on his way out, but Johnsonian populism remains rampant in the party.

[See also: A planet on fire]

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This article appears in the 20 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Broken Party