Being appointed chief secretary to the Treasury is generally a sign that the prime minister has plans for you. If you have never been in the cabinet before, then it means he or she is hoping to promote you to bigger things. This is the happy position that Rishi Sunak, the present occupant and a rising star of the party, finds himself in: he is expected to be promoted when Boris Johnson refreshes his team in the new year.
If you already hold cabinet rank, it means that the wilderness awaits at the next reshuffle. That was the unhappy position occupied by Liz Truss under Theresa May. But then, through the careful use of her Twitter account, her carefully curated Instagram feed and an eye for jokes that skirted the line between wit and outright disloyalty, Truss transformed her prospects. She became the most high-profile advocate of a brand of happy-go-lucky, free-market libertarianism that had been disregarded by May in favour of a more protectionist conservativism.
It meant that when Truss became the first cabinet minister to endorse Johnson’s bid for the party leadership, her support had cachet, and it bestowed his candidacy with a gravitas that it had lacked. He wasn’t just the candidate for anxious MPs in marginal seats fearing electoral defeat – he was the candidate of unrestrained economic and social liberalism, capable of winning the support of serious thinkers, not just opportunists.
That impression appeared to be confirmed in Johnson’s first choice of cabinet, which featured more “Thatcherites” than in any previous government. In addition to Truss, who had the crucial international trade portfolio, the Ayn Rand-reading Sajid Javid became chancellor, while the business brief went to Andrea Leadsom.
Then Johnson went to the country with a policy programme offering much less Thatcherism. He promised to increase NHS spending by £32bn over the course of the parliament, to roll back cuts in policing, and to do it all while leaving the EU single market – of which Margaret Thatcher was a key architect – and the customs union. On top of that he added a series of pledges designed to reassure voters who had backed Brexit in 2016 but had consistently rejected the Conservatives, promising to keep the NHS and agriculture out of any future US trade deal.
The combination did not delight all Tories. One former special adviser texted their former colleagues every time a Johnson promise made the prospect of a meaningful US-UK trade deal less likely. Others reassured themselves that the free-spending Johnson was a pose designed to win an election and that the libertarian Johnson would return once the contest had been won.
The Conservative majority – with Labour so far back that it’s unlikely to be able to dislodge the Tories in five years – means that the Prime Minister has the freedom to break his promises. But will he?
Much to the dismay of his libertarian supporters, those familiar with his thinking say that Johnson will govern as he ran for office. Truss’s Department for International Trade is expected to be shrunk, with much of its functions hived off to Michael Gove at the Cabinet Office, and others to the Business Department, where Rishi Sunak is tipped to take up residence.
As one senior Conservative put it to me, some are convinced that their “mandate was negative”. The Tories won a large majority because of who and what they were not: they were not Jeremy Corbyn and they were not proposing to spend another year arguing about the UK’s membership of the EU. The agenda put forward in that manifesto was – as Robert Colvile, the head of the Centre for Policy Studies think tank and one of its authors, put it – the end point of the “inexorable logic” of the Brexit vote, which compelled the party to abandon the metropolitan liberal voters who had elected David Cameron. As a consequence, economic libertarianism is off the menu.
But there is just one problem. You can believe in fairies all you want, but it doesn’t mean that thinking happy thoughts will make you fly. You can sincerely want to revive the struggling towns of England and Wales, ease the pressures on the NHS, keep taxes low and leave the regulatory and customs framework of the EU while reducing the UK’s ratio of debt to GDP.
But these promises cannot be reconciled with one another – not because Johnson is an opportunist or a double-dealer, but because the sums simply don’t add up. The economic benefits of leaving the customs union but pursuing a broadly protectionist programme based around the political interests of Britain’s small towns are non-existent. The libertarianism advocated by Liz Truss and others may not be politically popular but it can, at least, be achieved while delivering a form of Brexit.
That reality is one reason why many in Westminster believe that Johnson will use his large majority to deliver a softer Brexit than he has so far proposed. But the one constant in Johnson’s career, whether as a spinner of anti-EU yarns as a Brussels correspondent in the early 1990s or as a campaigner for Vote Leave, is his Euroscepticism. And yet his hostility to the institutions of the EU makes his other promises impossible to deliver.
What will he sacrifice?
The answer is that no one knows: not even Boris Johnson. The Conservatives cruised to victory by treating Brexit as a small foreign policy issue that could be put to one side so as to focus on domestic policy. But Brexit is the dominant issue of government policy – and how the Tories deal with it will have a bigger impact on the next election than anything Labour does in its impending leadership contest.
This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning