Reality has a strange power in politics. Engage with it, allow yourself to be formed by it, respond to it – then the political magic happens. Whether by accident, design or more likely Boris Johnson’s political intuition, that is what the Conservatives are doing – and it is why they are winning.
I argued over a decade ago in my book Red Tory that the path to majority government for future Conservatism lay in an alliance with those who has been so badly burnt by the fusion of social liberalism on the left and economic liberalism on the right. I called for a repudiation of liberalism in its governing hegemonic forms, for it only served the already ascendent.
David Cameron didn’t quite understand, and blithely thought one could – without contradiction – enact vicious and unnecessary austerity while speaking about social value and the “Big Society”. Hence, he and George Osborne were surprised by Brexit – but really, they shouldn’t have been. The demand for solidarity was unmet, so of course a sovereign nationalism would step into the vacuum.
Theresa May’s popularity, meanwhile, was unbounded when she announced on the doorstep of No 10 a clear Red Tory agenda. It collapsed when she tragically turned out to lack the necessary electoral charisma and policy options to realise any of it.
In the first case, a sanguine shallowness coupled with an unreformed Thatcherite Chancellor conspired against the realisation of Red Toryism. In the second, a Brexit-divided parliamentary party and the failure to populate the vision with any credible ideas consigned Red Toryism to the mausoleum of untried and unfulfilled ideologies.
Then along came Boris Johnson: a man who has both social and economic laissez-faire in his DNA. Yet he has the political acumen both to make all the big calls and to turn them into reality. He vocally supported and then, when in power, easily delivered Brexit, and despite many early errors he is piloting the UK out of the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic ahead of almost every other country.
And finally, through an evident pride in Britain he has destroyed the Labour Party by becoming the new representative of the working class in Parliament. That’s quite an achievement for a man thought of as a political clown.
Johnson may not have conceptualised what he does either for himself or anyone else, largely because – thanks to his political intuition – he doesn’t yet need to. He nonetheless leaves bemused anyone who holds a traditional understanding of modern Conservatism. His party remains to its core both socially and economically liberal, yet he is ending austerity, pumping money into Britain’s abandoned towns and hugely expanding the interventions that the state will make to safeguard the interests of his new electorate (recall the European Super League and how gloriously the market moguls were suppressed and suitably domesticated by a Conservative administration).
His government has challenged activists who were denying the very real progress on racial integration in the UK and appeared desperate to have the very idea and history of Britain vilified as white supremacist. There is hope also in some of those in government refusing to indulge radical progressives’ attempts to deny the realities of sex and biology.
In short, Johnson is moving economically left and culturally right, as I have argued the Conservative Party should do for over a decade. This is to be welcomed, and I would like to see both directions strengthened, increased and radicalised – for that is the only real way to help the poor and derided of these islands. Any return to liberal hegemony will simply enfranchise the overclass who are already rich in assets and opportunity.
However, for Johnson to truly lead, there needs to be a philosophy, a narrative, an over-arching story. If he continues to lead by personality alone, that will last just as long as his popularity does – and when his personal life, lack of attention to detail or serial government incompetence threaten his leadership, he will have nothing else to fall back on. The best leaders lead intellectually as well as instinctively, and their greatest legacy is their ideas woven into a coherent whole, a grand narrative that enables others to follow, copy and actualise. Boris as a Whig is empty and conventional (it is hard to name any of his achievements as London’s liberal mayor) and won’t help anyone. But Boris the Red Tory, well, that is and would be a different matter.
But to deliver, he needs ideas and policies that are of sufficient scope and scale to make a difference. Aside from the living wage, almost none of the interventions that any Tory government has made in the last ten years have made a positive difference to anyone in their new working-class electoral base. The cupboard is bare, the policy unit has produced very little. The big ideas are absent.
Conservatives are too addicted to small, points-based interventions that are so targeted and specific that nobody notices if they have happened or not. Beyond painting the odd high street, Johnson needs policy interventions at scale: radical support for the family and young children (such as transferable tax allowances between parents for the first few years of a child’s life); a holistic through-life reskilling system for everybody in the country; and a strategy of “northshoring”: for example, zero corporation tax for ten years for industries moving workers, factories and supply chain systems to left-behind areas in the North.
Given his party’s new constituency, Johnson really could be the Disraeli of the 21st century. He certainly doesn’t lack the imagination. But he also has to have the intellectual courage to make that his goal, and the policy stamina to create the ideas big enough to realise it.