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12 February 2020

The government lacks energy and a coherent plan. So, is no plan the plan, or is something else going on?

Tory MPs fear that the party’s ideologically incoherent December manifesto was not just for Christmas but for life.

By Stephen Bush

The beginning of a parliament tends to be a doubly painful time for the defeated. The first and most obvious reason is that a general election is fresh in the memory, and the necessity of replacing a beaten leader means that the party in question is largely absent as far as political debate is concerned. But the second is that the victor is likely to use its early weeks in office to ram through the most contentious and demanding aspects of its programme, so that the immediate repercussions have been forgiven and forgotten by the time of the next election. 

In the weeks following the 2010 election, David Cameron’s government brought forward the Academies Act, which expedited the creation of free schools, and the white papers that formed the basis for far-reaching reforms to health and education. George Osborne, the chancellor, froze public sector pay, removed child benefit from those earning above £50,000, and approved £17bn worth of extra cuts on top of those already planned by the previous Labour government. And all that while governing in coalition with the Lib Dems.

It is different this time. Beyond Brexit, the government’s programme is thin. What one hears most about are the rows between Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s senior adviser, and almost anyone else you care to name. One Labour official joked to me that the absence of contentious legislation had “thrown my grieving process off schedule”. But for Conservatives, the lack of anything that might cause an upset is serious. One Tory MP speculated that the government’s legislative ambitions looked more suited to a party with a majority of eight than of 80. 

Anxiety over the lack of energy is acute among policy wonks, whether they work in the network of right-wing think tanks around Westminster or in the civil service. They share the same diagnosis: a government that isn’t particularly bold when it is ahead in the polls, the next election is five years away and the main opposition parties are leaderless certainly won’t be in the mood for radical action later. “I thought Dom wanted to move fast and break things,” one civil servant remarked. “This seems more: move slowly and take great care of the furniture.”

The reality, however, is that the government is taking on big projects. Johnson has opted to press ahead with the HS2 railway and to accelerate the phasing out of petrol and diesel cars, as well as allowing Huawei, a tech company that many consider an arm of the Chinese state, to build parts of the UK’s telecommunications infrastructure. 

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The usual pattern is to pursue controversial policies that split the country but unite the party, in the hope that over time the fruits of those policies will be electorally beneficial. But Johnson has instead opted to embrace issues that are the cause of major divisions within the Conservative Party, but in which the average voter has little interest. Letting Huawei build parts of the 5G network is a decisive statement that securing top-class communications infrastructure is a higher priority than keeping China at arm’s length. HS2 largely divides MPs not by ideology but by geography: Conservative MPs in marginal seats in the West Midlands and north-west tend to support the scheme, while MPs in safe seats in the south oppose the disruption. And MPs in the new Tory seats in the north-east fear that their constituencies will see little benefit from it. 

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The plan to switch to electric vehicles spooks electorally minded Conservatives, who note the party’s long reliance on the support of motorists. Some MPs are tallying Johnson’s achievements in expanding cycle infrastructure as mayor of London with the fact that he has not ruled out increasing vehicle excise duty. They fear that he is planning a decisive shift in how the Tories treat drivers.

So the real source of Tory unease about the government’s agenda is not that there isn’t one but that it does not seem to hang together. Are the government’s more statist positions – the generous promises on funding for the NHS, police and schools – a result of Johnson’s need to win new voters in the last election? Or is this the new normal? The looming Budget, far more than the cabinet reshuffle, will settle those questions: it is there that the balancing act between the funding pledges and the continuing freeze on public spending elsewhere will have to be reconciled. 

Welfare policy may be the most reliable guide to the party’s ultimate direction. The implementation of Universal Credit has again been held up, this time until the end of the parliamentary term. The latest delay is because ministers are havering: they do not want to spend more on welfare but nor do they want to defend a slimmed-down version of Universal Credit. Yet not every tricky policy question can be put off until the next parliament.

Unease is at its highest among those who hoped that the various postures that Johnson struck during the general election would be discarded the moment that a parliamentary majority was secured. Before the election, one MP described the coalition that Johnson was trying to build as “single use only”: the party should do whatever it took to deliver Brexit and then pivot back to the free-market positions of its recent past. One special adviser, when I asked how they would reconcile their promises on agriculture and the NHS with the government’s professed desire for meaningful trade deals with the rest of the world, declared that Johnson would simply abandon his pledges. 

Dismay at the lack of controversial legislation isn’t so much about what the government is doing, but fear that the party’s ideologically incoherent December manifesto was not just for Christmas but for life.

This article appears in the 12 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Power without purpose