Something strange is happening within the political party famously ruthless in its pursuit of power and keeping hold of it. Its still popular prime minister, with an 80-seat majority, has only just marked his second anniversary, and has faced little threat from the official opposition so far. And yet Boris Johnson goes into the parliamentary recess up against a crescendo of howls from his own side. The rift opening up in the Conservative party is startling in its ferocity, and has revealed a new animosity towards its leader.
“Senior ministers”, “over half the cabinet”, “high-ranking MPs” are variously reported to be in rebellion against all the government’s key policies. Raising the national insurance rate to pay for NHS and social care has triggered profound existential angst about how to be a Tory after the Covid crisis. An erstwhile loyal press claque has turned angry and accusatory. What kind of Conservative is Johnson, anyway?
Ahead they see the array of intractable problems – but they balk at all possible solutions. They warn him off any deviation from the true path, fearing Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is the looming post-Covid future of more, not less, government.
Just look at what they are saying. “Tax increases should not even be on the table, and the brakes need to be slammed on public spending,” demands the Sunday Telegraph’s leader, headlined “This government is losing its grip”. The Sunday Times accuses him of emerging from his Covid bout last year suffering from “long statism”, warning that “Britain can’t keep on spending”. Robert Colvile, the director of the Thatcher-founded Centre for Policy Studies, bewails Johnson’s “disturbing faith in big government”, and a “strong streak of nannying and intervention” in its proposals. He refers to Ronald Reagan’s famous quip: “The [nine] most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help’.” Old shibboleths return, with the Free Market Forum’s head, Emma Revell, calling for “eliminating inefficiencies within the NHS”. (Has she visited an A&E department lately?) In her Telegraph rallying cry, it’s time Johnson “returns the Conservative party to its roots and starts delivering lower taxes”.
In Johnson’s former Spectator editorial seat, Fraser Nelson lambasts “Nanny Boris: the PM’s alarming flight from liberalism”, accusing him of “hoping to sneak through a fundamental change in the nature of the relationship between individual and the state”. Walloping him for “Big Boris is watching you” and “finding new ways of eroding our freedom”, he insists that vaccine passports are “the start of a biosecurity state”. Where is the lost Boris, the mocker of health and safety and seatbelts who “would once have mercilessly lampooned all of this”?
But what exactly is “all of this”? The right fears lockdowns, masks and quarantines as harbingers of a newly dominant state. Net zero carbon emissions (replacing gas boilers is a totem hate), social care, tax rises and levelling up are under fire. But calls for “cutting the fat” of spending are forlorn when public services have been pared beyond the bone for 10 years.
The Conservatives’ clever election campaign raised voter expectations that everything from NHS waiting times to failed flood defences would be repaired, yet the Institute for Fiscal Studies says Treasury plans expect another £17bn of public services to be cut. No one has prepared new Tory voters for this new austerity.
A stalemate on decisions, amid rows between a fiscally tight chancellor and a spendthrift prime minister, has unleashed this thrashing-about in Tory ranks. These dilemmas can’t be shelved, but there are no Tory-shaped solutions. Only state intervention, with higher spending and taxes, can confront climate catastrophe – for which, less than 100 days from Cop26 planetary decision-time, there is still no costed roadmap.
Johnson has options. With one bound he can abandon all pre-election promises: everyone knows the pandemic has changed everything. How easy to proclaim that the emergency means we must now rescue the NHS, education, social care and the social fabric itself: blood, sweat and taxes in a time of crisis. But that’s returning to the Conservative era before Thatcher, the more consensual “Butskellism” which his Thatcher-bred Tory generation detests. For them, the only true Conservative response to these crises is to do nothing, laissez-faire. Rely on the bogus old pretence that cutting “red tape”, “bureaucracy” and “inefficiency” yields a crock of gold at the end of a Tory rainbow.
Even Johnson’s bad Brexit is coming undone. His cabinet of rivalrous contenders will be no help – they only need nomination from the elderly extremists who run their dysfunctional party, ignoring broader-based Tory voters, north or south.
Paralysed, Johnson makes no decisions, and this cacophony from his own party will only stiffen his lack of resolve. The former leader William Hague warns that any step towards Keynsian big-state borrowing risks exposing his right flank to a “NewKip”, Faragist insurgency – low-tax, small-state, anti-immigration. Yet making deeper public cuts risks haemorrhaging support from voters that Johnson seduced with promises to ban the very word “austerity”.
Tories lash out angrily because there are no free-market answers. But come the autumn, both chancellor and prime minister will be forced to define themselves through taxation and spending choices. The Tory party, that great election-winning machine, usually adapts itself just enough to modern circumstance and just in time, but the groans of grinding gears from under its bonnet suggests the necessary adaptation this time may be an ideological stretch too far.