Shortly after Boris Johnson removed the whip from 21 of his Conservative colleagues in September 2019, I bumped into one of the defenestrated MPs wandering the corridors of parliament. They were worried: for the country, for their staff and also about what they would do to make ends meet. Still, they comforted themselves, at least they wouldn’t have to hear Esther McVey bore on any more. Or, they added, Philip Hollobone. Warming to a theme, within a few minutes they had listed half the parliamentary party as people they were glad to see the back of.
One of the differences between politics in 2019 and politics in 2021 is that MPs who disagree with each other no longer have to be kicked out of their party to avoid speaking to one another. The combative approach of Johnson’s former aide Dominic Cummings is partly to blame, but there is another reason Tory MPs have grown fractious. Their party is not just ideologically divided over lockdown but physically separated by it.
There is one thing that does unify the Conservatives: almost everyone can agree that Johnson keeps being caught flat-footed by the football player Marcus Rashford. Downing Street was blindsided by Rashford’s campaigning against food poverty last summer and has been racing to catch up with the Manchester United forward ever since.
Yet even that apparent unity is illusory. Although Tory MPs agree they shouldn’t allow Rashford to outpace them, they disagree on whether the party should be cutting him off before he can score – or whether Johnson, not Rashford, should be the one putting the ball in the net.
One school of thought is that there is no such thing as “emergency spending”: declaring that the state will put itself in charge of feeding hungry children not just in school hours but in the holidays means that future governments will never escape from the obligation to do so. These MPs argue that the government’s difficulties in ending the “temporary” £20 increase in Universal Credit prove their point. Money spent in bad times inevitably becomes money spent in good times.
What the government should instead do is make the case that the best way out of poverty is work, and that rather than increasing spending, the government should be cutting taxes and supporting businesses. These arguments, however, are stunningly unpopular.
The difficult truth for the Conservatives is that, thanks to David Cameron’s changes to the British welfare system, benefits are lower than they have been at any point since the 1940s, and in normal times most people on Universal Credit are themselves in work. That policy reality is one reason these MPs are increasingly outnumbered.
There is a larger group of Conservatives who think the party’s problem isn’t that they’re not fighting Rashford hard enough, but that they are fighting him at all. They believe that rather than being pressured into providing vouchers to feed the poorest, increasing Universal Credit and establishing a properly supportive welfare system, the Prime Minister should not only adopt these as policy, but argue for them as Conservative principles.
Others go further still. They point at Rashford – a multimillionaire from his talent and hard work, who has hired an impressive back-room team to support his campaign, and is bringing together the voluntary sector, businesses and local government to tackle food poverty – and say: isn’t this what the “Big Society” was supposed to look like? They believe his campaign’s success should be seen not as a sign of Conservative failure, but as a validation.
All three approaches involve hard choices. The party could decide, in common with most economists and the Labour opposition, that now is the time for governments to spend freely to ease the crisis, and get out ahead of Rashford for a change.
That carries with it heavy political risks. One Conservative MP argues that it would mean going to the country at the next election saying “Anneliese Dodds is right and Rishi Sunak was wrong: vote Tory!” Another points out that if the era of cheap borrowing comes to an end, the Conservatives would have to accept a world of permanently higher taxes.
Then there is the austere approach favoured by those who think the problem is not that Johnson U-turns slowly on these matters, but that he U-turns at all. That would mean pursuing a welfare policy significantly to the right of the party’s 2019 voters, and hoping that former Conservative voters who backed Remain are better disposed to Brexit by the time of the next election – also a risky proposition.
Or the party could opt to maintain its fiscal conservatism but embrace a larger welfare state: that means tax rises or cuts elsewhere, neither of which will go down well with its core coalition.
What these three options represent is the question that Johnson’s magnetic appeal to Leave voters allowed the Conservatives briefly to ignore: just what type of party is this anyway?
Are the modern Conservatives a party of Leave voters – one that is less open to globalisation and more relaxed about higher spending. Are they still a Thatcherite party – albeit one outside the largest free trade area in the world?
At the last election, Johnson’s political appeal allowed them to fudge the question. Now, as a distraction MPs grumble about Johnson’s incompetence and slowness. While they are united in believing that he moves too slowly, they cannot agree on the direction in which they want him to move.
This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden