Boris Johnson is a prime minister under pressure. Public disapproval of his government is drifting upwards. Confidence in the economy has collapsed. His approval ratings have shed more than 20 points in two months. The ‘rally effect’ that saw his support surge to nearly 70% has long gone. Former advisors are criticising the inner workings of his government. MPs openly complain about U-turns and indecision. The Conservative Party’s lead in the polls has crashed from more than 20 points to just five. And Keir Starmer now has the highest rating for any leader of the opposition since Tony Blair led Labour in 1995 and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory was topping the charts. Life comes at you fast, as my students say.
To be fair to Johnson his premiership has turned into something that neither he nor we expected. The theorist Michael Oakeshott once talked about politics being an interplay between two distinct styles. On one side stands the politics of faith, which yearns for national renewal, salvation and utopia on earth. On the other is the politics of scepticism, which is cynical of grand claims and more interested in process — in management and competency. These two styles continually compete. When sceptics fall into dry technocracy their opponents ask: “where are the people?” When the politics of faith demands that we “take back the control”, the sceptics reply: “yes, but how?”
Johnson, we all assumed, would speak to the politics of faith, a Prime Minister who would deliver national salvation and renewal by freeing the country from the European Union, building Global Britain and touring the Red Wall to cut red ribbons as we built a more egalitarian settlement. But Covid-19 had other plans. Here was a crisis that unfolded simultaneously on not one but two fronts: health and economics. Such complexity called for qualities that have rarely been on display in Johnson Land.
Crises demand competency over grandiosity, detail over vision, scepticism over faith. Walter Bagehot once remarked that the great qualities that are needed in these moments of crisis — a rapid energy, eager nature and imperious will — usually become impediments once normal times resume. With Johnson it is the other way around; his great qualities in normal times appear to have become impediments during a crisis.
This is what encouraged the sceptics to walk away. Ever since the referendum the Conservative Party has been haemorrhaging middle-class professionals and graduates. Already alienated by Brexit, the fumbled response to the Covid crisis and what they see as populist amateurism has pushed these former Tory voters further away. In the past six months alone Labour’s share of the Remain vote has jumped by nearly 10 points, with Remainers slowly but steadily starting to align in the way that Leavers did six months ago.
This is why Johnson simply cannot afford to alienate his true believers, who practise the politics of faith. And for a while he has managed not to. Ever since the Great Lockdown arrived and despite a wave of criticism his party has not once fallen below the 40% threshold — a threshold the Conservative Party barely broke between the ERM crisis and the Brexit vote. It is the increased tribalism of British politics that has so far handed Johnson a get-out-of-jail-free card. But things might be starting to change. Cracks are starting to appear.
One joke doing the rounds is that when historians in the future say that they specialise in the year 2020 they will need to specify which quarter. The first quarter brought the crisis, the second brought the protests. While the former encouraged sceptics to conclude that Johnson is simply not up to the job, the latter has encouraged conservatives to ask the Prime Minister some of their own tough questions. And this has thrown light on a major vulnerability that lies at the heart of his premiership.
Path dependency tells us that the decisions that we made in the past limit the decisions that we can make in the future. In short, history matters. We tend to forget this but Johnson’s premiership started with a promise. Alongside his consiglieri, Dominic Cummings, the Prime Minister was among the first to spot the looming ‘realignment’ of our politics, how a second divide over our values cuts across our traditional divide over social class.
The end result is a lot of conflicted voters who lean Left on the economy but Right on culture. Theresa May grasped that there might be a new winning formula in town but never quite figured out how to put the ingredients together. Johnson did. And the cocktail that he produced was explosive.
Delivering Brexit, controlling migration and rebalancing an unequal nation struck a loud chord across Britain’s heartlands. And this rebalancing act was never just about bridges and trains. It was about reasserting all of the things that conservatives feel have been eroded over recent years — the family, our civic culture, virtue, morality, community, tradition, heritage and our national identity. The Conservative Party would, in short, be all that its name implied.
This appealed strongly to conflicted voters. It encouraged them to put culture ahead of economics and so unlocked an alliance of middle-class Tories and blue-collar workers who were united more by their values than economic experience. In just four years, the percentage of Leavers voting Conservative rocketed from 44% in 2015 to 73% in 2019. This gave Johnson what no Conservative leader had held since Thatcher: true electoral power. It was — and still is — one of the most impressive realignments in history.
But we are barely six months in and already the true believers are starting to ask questions. Speak to activists to the Right of Johnson and you can already spot the seeds of a looming revolt.
They argue that despite having a large majority the Prime Minister has failed to get his arms around an array of issues that are critical to the future health of conservatism. This is less to do with Brexit and more to do with national culture and heritage. They talk of growing threats to freedom of speech and the spread of ‘cancel culture’, how politics is seeping into otherwise neutral institutions like the police, judiciary and civil service, the politicisation of our children through school-backed protests. Then there is the growing confidence of radical ‘woke’ activists, stubbornly high net immigration and illegal migration on the south coast, a willingness among journalists to flout neutrality by indulging in political monologues and the influence of Black Lives Matter, which some describe as ‘a neo-Marxist movement’ with ‘far-Left objectives’.
Not so long ago, after the brutal atrocity at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the world pledged to defend freedom of speech. Now, only five years later, we seemingly do not have much of a problem with newspapers removing comment editors, publishers refusing to work on books they disagree with and students calling for the sacking of journalists whose views they disagree with.
Activists who as recently as last year played a role in mobilising a revolt on the Right against the Conservative Party complain that there is a ‘moral vacuum’ at the heart of British politics — a failure to stand up against what they see as the relentless, onward march of cultural liberalism. “What are you conserving, Conservatives?” asked one former MEP. “What are you for?”
Conservatives might have political power but they seem to wield remarkably little cultural power. This concern was then put on steroids by the unfolding ‘Statue Wars’ that saw protestors unilaterally tear down or vandalise statues, attack police and desecrate cherished memorials. Rather than view this as an ephemeral by-product of the protests in America it is clear that it is another touchstone of our underlying values divide.
Leavers were horrified by the events. More than eight in ten disapproved of how statues were pulled down without consultation, the same proportion saw the events in Bristol as a ‘criminal act’ and six in ten disapproved of how the police failed to intervene. Many question why it took Conservatives so long to intervene in the debate and worry that much of this is the start of a broader assault on national heritage and culture — and one that is taking place while conservatives are actually running the country. The covering up of the statue of Winston Churchill appeared as a fitting symbol of this general timidity.
It is this growing sense of disillusionment with Johnson’s premiership which now lies behind plans to launch a new movement. Embryonic talks started in the early days of the Great Lockdown and there is talk of significant financial resources. Given that the country no longer holds European elections under a more favourable system of proportional representation these activists contend that the main purpose would be to once again apply indirect rather than direct pressure. It would not be hard, they argue, to attract 8-10% of the vote simply by demanding that the Conservative Party be… conservative. “Boris has gone very, very wet”, complained one.
Pointing to his own removal from LBC, Nigel Farage has joined the fray. He argues that the Tories failed to draw a distinction between the initial grievance over George Floyd and a much wider assault from the cultural Left, and that “millions of Conservative voters want to see some moral courage not the current cowardice in the face of anarchic Marxism”. Like all outsiders who never became insiders Farage is free to indulge fully in the politics of faith.
There is no doubt that Johnson needs to tread carefully. For one thing, he is leading a very different electorate from the one that pushed Cameron — his old rival — into power. Because of where he started — with his promise — he has become far more dependent on social conservatives. These are voters who on the whole do not want to see a Singapore-on-Thames, do not want the country to be opened up endlessly to foreign investors and Chinese influence, and do not simply want to replace high immigration from inside the EU with high immigration from outside the EU. This latter issue is less important to voters than it once was but Johnson should be reminded that today the number of Conservatives who think that immigration is being badly managed is still greater than the number who think it is being managed well.
It is telling that those who talk of starting a new party initially wanted to call it the ‘Reform Party’ like the movement in Canada that started with the claim that liberal conservatives were selling out conservatism. One question that has always hovered above the Johnson premiership is whether it might turn out to be too liberal to hold the alliance together and prevent the arrival of yet another breakaway movement in British politics. I guess we might be about to find out.
In an earlier era in British politics David Cameron could just about afford to side-step around these social conservatives because he had taken middle-class liberals along for the ride. Johnson is in an entirely different position. The point from where he started will limit his choices and shape his eventual destination. He is thrown out of power by losing a big chunk of conservatives in the face of a renewed progressive alliance. He is kept in power by remembering what got them there and holding up his side of the divide. And that means being something that he sometimes appears to struggle with: a true Conservative.