When Theresa May became prime minister, she was urged to get a dog. A pooch, some of her aides explained, would make her seem more relatable – warmer, friendlier. Almost four years later, May is no longer prime minister: but Boris Johnson has a dog and a parliamentary majority of 80.
These facts are both linked and not linked. Although to my knowledge Boris Johnson’s dog, Dilyn, did not emerge from a focus group, people who work with the Prime Minister praise his ability to take direction and to absorb the lessons of his campaign strategists. Johnson is not a politician who clings to failed approaches – or one with a tendency to shoot the messenger.
That’s part of the reason why he has undergone something of a transformation since the election. Voters thought that a majority Tory government would break the Brexit deadlock and that Johnson was committed to leaving the EU. But they were still concerned about his standing on the world stage, as post-election focus groups for BritainThinks showed: while voters like that their Prime Minister stands out from the crowd, they worry that international leaders are laughing at him, not with him. That’s the story behind Johnson’s latest rebrand: the hair is shorter, the manner more serious.
His premiership is the result of the Conservatives’ search for ways to win after Brexit. The electoral coalition that elected and re-elected David Cameron was largely supportive of economic liberalism. The economic approach of George Osborne, whatever you might say of its wider consequences for the country, matched well with the desires of the voters Cameron needed to keep onside.
But while Tory voters were united over economics, they were divided over Brexit, and the Conservatives’ support for leaving the EU meant that to win and hold power, the party had to remake its electoral coalition. May kickstarted the transformation, but it took Johnson to complete it. The last Conservative majority was built on voters who disagreed about cultural issues but agreed about economics. The new majority is built on voters who agree about cultural issues but are divided on economics – at least superficially.
As a result, the Tory policy offer has changed. While there is a large gap between the PM’s rhetoric and the reality of government, Johnson’s proposals represent a significant increase in government spending compared to the Cameron and May years. Few of Johnson’s backers really understood the depth of the transformation they were embarking upon – in the run-up to the election, most would confidently claim that once the party had won its big majority, his more statist promises would simply fade away – but they knew that they were in a bind. His cabinet appointments provided reassurance: one Tory MP told me before the election that whenever they were unnerved by a policy they reminded themselves of the free-market credentials of the top team. But the government Johnson leads appears to have the same relationship to economic liberalism as the Anglican Communion has to the divinity of Christ: it’s clear that most of the ministers believe in it, but it rarely seems to make it into any of the sermons.
Added to that is a new intake of Conservative MPs, elected in former Labour seats, promising to increase spending on the police and the NHS. While the new crowd are far from the born-again leftists they are sometimes portrayed as, most MPs for marginal seats, regardless of their party, tend to support increased public spending in their own constituencies. It all adds up to a party offering something radically different to what came before. It has even developed a distinctly early-New Labour passion for constitutional tinkering, with the idea floated of moving the House of Lords to York.
Relocating the UK’s second chamber to the North is an idea with the same genesis as Johnson’s haircut: it’s designed to hold together a disparate electoral coalition. And there are signs of more announcements to come. The Treasury’s investment guidelines have been torn up, as the old rules were perceived to have favoured London and the south, thanks to their prioritisation of national value-added over local benefit. A new approach to spending is expected.
These changes are necessary, Tories think, because of the new voters they have brought into the tent. Yet the coalition may not be as disparate as some Tory MPs fear. It’s true that voters in the newly Conservative constituencies have significantly lower incomes than those in the seats the party has held since 2015 or before. But what they have in common with the rest of the Conservative electoral coalition is that they own their own homes, and that they earn more than the cost of their mortgages.
It’s far from certain that the new Tory voters in Leigh are crying out for their town to become as tightly linked to Manchester as Canterbury – a constituency the Conservatives failed to win in 2019 – has become to London. Doing so may simply result in a tide of voters from Manchester – the young, the socially liberal, and the well educated – who will bring their politics with them, tipping the seat back to Labour. The policies required might look more like those offered by Philip Hammond – relatively small amounts of money to fix potholes and keep high streets flourishing, a firm no to new housing developments or big transport projects – rather than something that apes Ed Miliband.
The Tory party believes that its new voters are seeking a revolution. But just as those who want Johnson to stay funny but be respected on the world stage aren’t really looking for a whole new Boris Johnson, those who backed the Tories in December aren’t in search of a new economic settlement – just a better-kept high street.
This article appears in the 22 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power to the people