Can Boris make a comeback?

A year after winning his dazzling majority, the Prime Minister is a shadow of his former self

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December 11, 2020

Machiavelli insisted that when it came to political leadership half was virtu, by which he meant action oriented towards power and glory, and half was fortuna, or luck, which Machiavelli summarised as a “blind bitch goddess”, and Harold MacMillan as “events dear boy, events”.

Virtu, for Machiavelli, was the political skill to turn circumstances that you did not choose and events that you could not predict to your advantage. Fortuna is a condition of politics, there are always things happening which you cannot control, and without virtu you can never escape its constraints.

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And this Government has experience of riding the waves of fortuna to reach the shores of glory and power. It understood that the long-term disaffection of Labour’s heartland voters with globalisation and abandonment combined with the short-term incoherence of Jeremy Corbyn offered a moment to transform the class basis of English politics, with Brexit serving as the perfect proxy through which these could be aligned. The Labour heartlands vote was a covenantal bond that endured through generations, and it was broken last December.

In his 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway’s character Mike Campbell is asked how he went bankrupt. He replies, “Two ways. Gradually and then suddenly.” That was Labour’s story last December. The ties that bound had been loosening for decades and were then broken. The Conservative lead among C2 voters was almost 20%, and the scale of the carnage would have been worse were it not for the presence of the Brexit Party in Labour-held seats.

And Brexit held out the promise of a Covenantal renewal based on the restoration of democracy, of Parliament, of the Common Law and sovereignty. By embodying that, Boris Johnson achieved the class realignment of the political parties, with the Conservatives overwhelmingly dominant outside the big cities and university towns.

They could speak for England in a way that Labour could 80 years previously. The Conservatives broke with Thatcherism with their talk of levelling up and a regionally-targeted Keynesian industrial policy. They grasped the framework of a new era in which there was a more constructive role for the state in the organisation of the economy, a significant role for the working class and for the places where they lived — which had been desecrated and neglected for half a century while the Conservative Party was committed to the City of London, the primacy of finance and the magic of the market.

Fortuna had opened up the space and, with Dominic Cummings by his side, Boris Johnson had the virtu to seize the moment. All Hail Good King Boris as he flew off to the West Indies last Christmas with a decade of uncontested dominium before him.

And this is when the face of fortuna turned and a cloud no bigger than a man’s hand appeared over Wuhan, a faraway place that no-one had ever heard of. And, in the storm that followed it was revealed, with the clarity of a lightning bolt, the underlying conditions of our polity, and the lack of strategic clarity of the new Government. Events, dear boy, events.

First there was the unresolved incoherence, framed as the economy versus human life. An emergency was declared in which the liberties were pitted against public health.

Then came a state characterised by debt and the NHS: local initiatives were overridden by centralised directives. Local authorities were ignored, and the full scale of our industrial palsy was revealed. In a perverse homage to the model that had created the conditions for their political success, state centralisation was combined with crony capitalism.

It was recognised that our economy had no capacity to produce face masks or dressing gowns, let alone ventilators or aspirin. Some £1.5 billion pounds went to companies linked to the Government, mainly to facilitate emergency imports. Another £479 million was spent on consultants in order to by-pass the civil servants. Many millions of the face masks were faulty.

The state of emergency rendered procurement procedures redundant, and it turned out that the main source of supply was also the source of the virus — China. Britain had contracted out its industrial capacity and no aspect of the response addressed the underlying problem.

While it is true to say that no Labour politician other than Keir Starmer made any impression, it is equally true to say that whenever a cabinet minister emerged into public view they were revealed as either inept or corrupt. Robert Jenrick and Gavin Williamson spring to mind.

The furlough scheme made no distinctions between sectors that would provide the growth of the future economy, no incentives to reduce extended supply chains in agriculture, medicine or PPE. There was no attempt to strengthen regional resilience, to level up.

They did not have the virtu to withstand the change of fortune. None of the responses to Covid gave any indication that there was either an industrial policy or an institutional strategy that could serve as a basis for consolidation of the class coalition they had created last December. While Danny Kruger outlined a strategy of a new social covenant that would strengthen place and society, no other aspect of public policy was aligned with that. The late Sir Roger Scruton was given a knighthood for his work on developing a housing strategy based on place, local building and beauty, and when he died in January the only Government response was a further deregulation of planning laws.

The underlying conditions that Covid preys upon and intensifies are geographical inequality exacerbated by lack of assets, the weakness of productive capacity and the primacy of finance and debt. The polity is threatened by Scottish secession and a strategy of centralisation. Super Hospitals and Super Labs denuded local places of capacity, track and trace as well as testing failed to establish themselves.

What is required is the establishment of local banks and vocational colleges to generate value, but the Treasury took control and small to medium sized businesses, particularly in the catering and entertainment sector, have amassed a debt that will require relief and sustained partnership.

A programme combining debt relief with institutional renewal is required to resurrect local businesses and there was nothing in the Covid response that would lead to that. It was sporadic and intense, indicating crisis management rather than strategic statecraft. There has been talk of infrastructure, but not in institutions such as British Rail and the Post Office that could be shared with Scotland and strengthen the institutions of the Union.

The Conservative victory in December was based upon an understanding of the importance of three things that were denied in the previous era. The first was a recognition of the important role of the state as an economic actor, and not simply an external regulator. The kind of economic intervention envisaged by the Government would have violated EU rules relating to competition law and state aid. That was how they could present Brexit as a moment of national renewal.

The second was the political importance of the working class, which was previously considered an anachronistic irrelevance. Their vote decided the referendum and the election of the Government. The third was the importance of place, and the distinction between the hubs and the heartlands. Not only were local authorities and initiatives discarded in favour of central control but there have been no steps towards the integration of the state, place and work into a form of statecraft appropriate to the scale of renewal.

The inability to react strategically to events means that you become their prey, and the removal of Dominic Cummings has only intensified the strategic void. He understood that the Government’s programme could only be delivered outside regulatory convergence and an active role for the state was required. We will find out in the next few days whether there is any understanding of that remaining within the Government. It is not fishing and transport but state aid that really matters; if they fold on that then there will be no possibility of achieving their political goals.

Fortuna could yet save the Government. The inability of Labour to renew itself as an object of affection for the working class or articulate a plausible economic plan for national renewal may allow the Government to limp along. They wish to give a Christmas present of a vaccine and a deal and start the new year as if this one never happened. Yet a year after their triumph they have no strategy, no narrative and very little energy. And they know that next year could be worse.