It’s almost two years into the fourth term of a Tory government and we’re in the middle of fuel shortage. In fact, it’s not just fuel we’re fretting about, but also energy and food — hence the name of this ‘EFFing crisis’. Labour’s poll lead should be massive, but the Conservatives are still out in front. Despite everything.
The pundits have been left scratching their heads, but really, they shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the story of the last eleven years is of one effing crisis after another — and the Tories clearly thrive on it. Don’t forget that their decade of dominance began with a crisis, not a victory. In 2010 the general election produced a hung parliament. Yet in the space of five days, the Tories negotiated the first coalition government since the war and carried on regardless.
Since then, there have been many more crises, from austerity and the Scottish referendum, to Brexit and the pandemic. These are crises in the medical sense of the word — the point at which things could go either way for the patient. Any one of them could have sunk the Tories, but didn’t. Indeed, it was a case of what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. At each election since 2010, the Conservative share of the vote has gone up.
Of course, it’s not that Conservative governments haven’t taken damage over the last eleven years — just ask David Cameron, George Osborne and Theresa May. But the other parties have always come off worse — as Nick Clegg or Jeremy Corbyn could confirm.
Conservatives aren’t supposed to like change — and especially not disruptive change. As Lord Salisbury put it, “whatever happens will be for the worse, therefore it is in our interest that as little should happen as possible.” But that pessimistic, mistrustful worldview is perhaps why the Tories are better prepared to cope with disruption than their opponents.
In her 2007 polemic, The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein came up with the concept of “disaster capitalism.” It’s an answer to an awkward question for the Left: why does capitalism keep on winning? It’s not despite the damage it does, she argued, but because of it: whether a disaster is natural or manmade, there’s always some corporation ready and willing to exploit the situation.
It’s a self-serving narrative — a universal cop-out for the failures of the Left, but it does contain a grain of truth. Whether in economics or any other sphere, there are those who are temperamentally suited to succeed through disaster. Perhaps we need a similar concept — let’s call it “crisis conservatism” — to explain the last eleven years of British politics.
Of course, the EFFing crisis isn’t over yet. It might have only just begun. The Conservative Party Chairman, Oliver Dowden, has promised that there’ll be turkey on the table this Christmas. But if there isn’t, Boris’s luck might just turn. The Prime Minister’s enemies are salivating at the prospect. Andrew Neil can barely contain himself: “big government requires big competence, something Johnson and his lacklustre Cabinet clearly lack. That is likely to become even more apparent during a winter of scarcity, disruption and rising prices…”
But in their impatience to see “BoJo the Clown” get his comeuppance, his critics are missing a more subtle threat to his grip on power. If the shelves stay full, the lights stay on and Covid is contained, then the political agenda will shift to this country’s long-term problems instead.
For a government used to short-term crisis management, that could prove fatal. Indeed, it is when a country emerges from a period of upheaval — and can finally see beyond the next emergency — that voters are most likely to demand a new direction. The three elections that defined Britain’s post-war history took place in 1945, 1979 and 1997 — after the Second World War, the Winter of Discontent and Black Wednesday respectively. In each case, victory went to the leader offering the surest promise of change: Clement Attlee, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair.
Unfortunately for the Tories, their leader now and for the foreseeable future is Boris Johnson. In his recent profile of Angela Merkel, Jeremy Cliffe describes the two basic kinds of leader: the gestalter who shapes the course of events and the verwalter who merely manages them. For the most part, Merkel is an archetypical verwalter. The trouble with Boris is that he’s neither. He needs a category of his own. I’d suggest strassenmusiker — because he’s the consummate busker. He turns up, improvises and moves on. It’s a skill-set ideally suited to the politics (if not the governance) of crisis. But what this government needs now is a gestalter — a Thatcher or a Blair who can both articulate and implement a serious, long-term vision.
Boris would argue that he already has one: the levelling-up agenda. His government is committed to tackling the overlapping issues of regional inequality and stagnant wages. But, so far, he’s only defined the problem, not the solution.
The Prime Minister needs to plug that gap in his big speech tomorrow, because if he doesn’t then others will try to do it for him. Neil O’Brien, a minister in the Department for Levelling Up, defines the agenda as “boosting living standards”, “improving public services” and “restoring local pride”. His boss — Michael Gove — has been talking about a “high value, free enterprise, low tax economy”. Is that the same thing? It doesn’t sound like it — at least not without proper explanation.
More dangerous than these attempts to be helpful is the threat posed by the free market Right of the party — who don’t believe in Boris’s agenda at all. We’ve already had Cabinet members like Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng banging the drum for free trade and low taxes. They don’t have much to offer apart from re-heated Thatcherism, but nature abhors a vacuum. All the more reason for Boris to fill it before somebody else does.
Potentially, the biggest threat of all is from Rishi Sunak. Judging by his conference speech yesterday, the Chancellor is triangulating between the Prime Minister and the free marketeers. He’s still on board with the PM’s agenda, but if he feels the need to compete with Truss for the Thatcherite mantle, then that will change. As Sunak made clear in his speech, tax cuts have to be paid for — which would mean less money for levelling-up.
Boris Johnson is in danger of losing the initiative. Not to Labour, but to his own colleagues. He must therefore dial back the crisis conservatism and fight for the long-term solutions to this country’s long-term problems. Indeed, he must confront the economic libertarians in his party over the failure of their agenda. After all, they’ve had their chance. They’ve had almost everything they could have wished for — from a globalised economy to the mass migration of cheap labour. Corporate taxation is low, the unions are weak, credit is inexpensive and executive pay unrestrained.
So given all that supply-side goodness, where’s the growth they promised us? Where’s the prosperity? Far from stimulating enterprise, the uncontrolled flow of labour and capital has undermined it. Investment and productivity have tanked — and no wonder. If there’s not enough consumer demand in the economy because workers aren’t paid enough, then why would companies risk their money on developing better products and services?
What levelling-up really means is fixing a broken economic model — and Boris should not be afraid to say so. The time to deal with root causes of our national malaise has come. He cannot rely on another crisis to distract our attention.