Why Boris Johnson is desperate to keep Brexit in the news

Europe is the only controversy around which the Conservatives’ unstable coalition can unite. 

 

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The worst thing about getting Brexit done is that Brexit gets done. This is bad news for anyone who never wanted to get Brexit done. But it is terrible news too for all those who wanted to get Brexit done because now they have nothing else to talk about. The Brexiteers have, as they say in American politics, lost the issue. It is the terrifying prospect of emptiness that lies underneath Boris Johnson’s provocative willingness to break the law.

The Internal Market Bill, which passed its second reading on 14 September, is the latest instalment in a staged fight. If there is a trade deal, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly pledged there will be, the bill is redundant anyway. It is there because Conservative strategists need Brexit in the news. It’s the only controversy around which their electoral coalition can unite.

The Conservative Party has always been an uneasy alliance between its protectionist and its free-trading wings. The last Tory with a talent for synthesis was Margaret Thatcher, who prized markets not for the liberties they offered but the disciplines they demanded. Thatcher’s stress on the vigorous virtues of providence and prudence combined a traditional sensibility with the radical doctrines of Milton Friedman.

It was 50 years ago on 13 September that Friedman wrote in the New York Times that “there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”. The Friedman doctrine became an ideological inspiration for a generation of Tories. Yet nothing is so simple that a single idea will do. The irony of Friedman’s early career is that the apostle of private freedom got his break on the public purse. Unable to land an academic post, Friedman went to Washington, DC, where Franklin D Roosevelt’s National Resources Planning Board was starting the career of many a young economist. Friedman himself, at the time, regarded Roosevelt’s job-creation schemes as vitally appropriate responses to a critical situation. He later had a spell in the Department of the Treasury working on tax policy, where he helped to invent the payroll withholding tax system, which hugely increased the efficiency of federal revenue collection.

The Tory party of 2020 has added a third dimension to the perennial struggle between the free-traders and the nativists. In 2019 the Conservative vote split three ways. The Tories have a constituency among the business class, who deplored Brexit marginally less than they deplored Jeremy Corbyn. They have a wealthy and traditional shire vote. And they have a vote among those, in the market towns of the Midlands and the north, who deserted Labour over Brexit.

This is a highly unstable coalition. The commercial vote and shire vote is wealthy; the ex-Labour vote, not so much. The shire vote shares socially conservative values with the Red Tories, but not with the commercial folk. There is scarcely an issue that unites the three tribes. In the Iliad Homer describes a three-headed, fire-breathing hybrid creature: the front head was a lion, the hind part was the head of a snake and the head of a goat was carried on its back. Homer calls the creature the chimera.

This is a chimerical Tory party, which will not be able to keep its three parts in balance. Indeed, the Tory vote has been getting older, less wealthy and less diverse at every successive election since 2010. The alliance of the rural redoubts and the neglected market towns was sealed by the 2016 European referendum. The “clockface” analysis by Populus shows all the 2019 Tory gains to be in towns with both low economic security and low levels of diversity. That urban vote was grafted on to the homogeneous rural Conservative vote. This new alliance of rich and poor is held together loosely by conservative social values. But, more specifically, it is held together by Brexit.

This country-going-to-the-dogs alliance is unlikely to survive a recession. Friedman’s old bailiwick of tax policy will show that the monetary interests of wealthy Tories cannot be endlessly reconciled with that of poorer Tories. This is a party that is about to undergo basic tuition in the hard facts of inequality. The shires, for whom the fiscal conservative Rishi Sunak will in time give voice, will want the government to lay off their wallets. The Red Tories will want a New Deal. The Prime Minister is adept at wishing away contradictions. The errors of his withdrawal agreement mean that Johnson may, like William Gladstone in 1066 And All That, spend his “declining years trying to guess the answer to the Irish question”. But the Irish contradiction cannot be wished away, and neither can the economic contradiction.

What we can expect instead are pointless attacks on institutions such as the BBC, the civil service and the judiciary. There will have to be plenty of the populist, anti-conservative nonsense that leads Robert Buckland, the Lord Chancellor, to say he will quit if the rule of law is broken “in an unacceptable way”. The absurdity of this distinction is what happens when you lose the issue that holds your party together. Politics after Brexit will be tough going for the Conservatives.

The virtues the Red Tories most extol are, according to Populus, strength, honesty and loyalty, which are hardly the three attributes of this chimerical Prime Minister. In 1970, Milton Friedman offered an important rider to his advocacy of market freedom. The seeking of profit must stay “within the rules of the game”. How strange that a Conservative Prime Minister, and the 340 feeble MPs who voted for the Internal Market Bill, should need to be taught such an elementary lesson. They will learn it eventually, if not yet. 

Philip Collins joins the New Statesman this week as a columnist and contributing writer

Philip Collins is a New Statesman columnist and contributing writer. 

This article appears in the 18 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Covid

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