X Close

Boris Johnson’s disaster Toryism A series of crises has distracted us from the party's lack of vision

Boris at the Conservative Party conference, yesterday. Credit: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Boris at the Conservative Party conference, yesterday. Credit: Hollie Adams/Bloomberg via Getty Images


October 5, 2021   5 mins

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. 


Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.

peterfranklin_

Join the discussion


Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber


To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Subscribe
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

21 Comments
Most Voted
Newest Oldest
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

I have never seen a bigger bunch of lily-livered bedwetters than conservative journalists over the last couple of months.
An 80-seat majority, well ahead in the polls mid-term, economy opening up with no threat of mass unemployment. Brexit done after 4 1/2 years of torment, Covid defeated after 18 months of misery.
Loads of trends have been accelerated which will improve the lives of Brits: remote working will allow millions of workers to buy a family home away from the over-priced commuter-belt, limits on low-paid immigration will improve the salaries of the working class, automation will free up people to take more fulfilling work.
Global trends could also work in Britain’s favour:
Global warming – we are players in most of the growing technologies, we may have huge lithium deposits under Cornwall, we have the world’s largest offshore windfarms and unlike most of the world, even in the worst predictions, our temperate climate will just be a little bit warmer and less rainy in the summer – hardly a disaster.
Bio-security – we have built a first-class vaccine research, design and production capability. We have world-beating universities and pharmaceutical companies. We now have a testing infrastructure that can be re-purposed as necessary.
The rise of China – this is already pushing The West back together – post-Brexit, we are seeing a renewal of ties with the Commonwealth and the Anglosphere – AUKUS, Oz FTA, soon to arrive NZ FTA, possible “early harvest” Indian FTA this winter, CPTPP, eventually a US FTA. This will also, in time, heal the rifts with the EU and the French.
Someone mentioned in these comments last week that after the conclusion of a period of prolonged stress (in this case, the Pandemic), people tend to act irrationally and should avoid making any big decisions until they have had time to adjust. I think commentators should take a deep breath and remember that last winter they predicted Covid + flu + mass redundancies + “Brexit chaos” + Dominic Cummings infighting would bring down the government. It didn’t.
A week from now petrol stations will be fully stocked, on Christmas Day turkeys and presents will arrive as normal and a year from now, Boris will still be PM.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

If others are jockeying for Boris’ position that’s a sign of good political health. Nobody wanted to replace Callaghan in 1978, Major in 1996 or Broon in 2009 because at that point the job was a poisoned chalice. Anyone who replaces Boris now can look forward to a couple of terms in office rather than imminent GE defeat.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

At least that provides some motivation for Boris to stay on his toes – Labour isn’t going to do it, is it – they’re too busy fighting amongst themselves and lobbing puerile insults. Such non-existent opposition is bad for the health of democracy.

Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

The only reason Boris has an 80 seat majority is because there was no-one else to vote for.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Aren’t all elections just about choosing the lesser of two evils? We had a Remoaner/Corbyn/Sturgeon alliance or Boris. That hasn’t really changed.

Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

We don’t have quality politicians anymore. Does anyone seriously believe Margaret Thatcher would have tolerated any of the amateurs we have seen in recent years with a couple of exceptions.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

Which will still apply in 2024, no?

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

I’m constantly amazed at members of a cabinet that supposedly supports free markets telling business management to get their employees back into the office. Have they forgotten the Thatcherite edict of ‘Let management manage’?

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

I keep banging on about this but I’m not going to stop because the message isn’t getting across until other people start repeating it like it’s their own idea.
In the past 75 years, when oppositions have won general elections, it has usually been against governments that were a minority when the election was fought. Labour in 1979 and the Conservatives in 1997 are the most recent examples of this.
There has been only one exception: one occasion when a government with a working majority was defeated at a general election and replaced by the opposition with its own working majority. This was in 1970, when Labour (majority 98) lost to the Conservatives (majority 31). The 1970 electorate included 18-year-old voters for the first time, however, which likely had a bearing on this result. When it’s the same demos from one election to the next, the result is wholly predictable.
Cameron didn’t win a majority against Broon because the latter went into the election with a majority of 60. His 12-seat majority was beatable and so it proved: May lost that majority because it was too small.
In 2019 Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority – 100 seats really on fair boundaries – delivered two terms, not one. His majority Government can thus expect to win the next general election. The current Labour leader’s job is simply to lose it, as well as possible.
If this iron law of psephology were about to be broken, the evidence would be all around us. Labour would be soaring in the polls, and would be trouncing the government in council and by-elections. It’s leader ratings would be blowing Boris away. It would have some serious and sensible messages, and it would be relentlessly presenting and articulating them. The government would have seen its showpiece policies collapse into chaos, and its ministers would now be at each others’ throats to position themselves amid the wreckage.
None of it’s happening. The opposition looks exactly like a vicious rabble of Marxist anti-Semites and hatemongers squabbling with a cabal of rich hand-wringing Islington lawyers because that’s exactly what it is.
Under the FTPA, the next election has to be no later than May 2024 (not on the five-year anniversary of the last election). There’s a good chance Boris will win two terms at that one, too. By 2032 or 2033, it starts to look very interesting for the Labour Party, because it will be nearly a quarter century since they won, they probably still won’t look like winning, and everyone knows anyway that their last stint was an unmitigated, ruinous, murderous disaster. That is perhaps the point at which they disband. We need a party of the left, just not the ones we’ve got.
Everything will be fine.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jon Redman
Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Excellent comment!

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Everything and everybody (almost everybody) in Britain will get poorer. Britain has nothing to offer the world so how can we expect to stay up at the top of the world? The point is, how should this decline be made as slow as possible? My own plan:

1) Keep Labour out because Labour’s policies will deliberately increase our poorness. (I refrain from using the word ‘poverty’ because it is an emotive word and we do not suffer from ‘poverty’.)

2) Have a real, useful energy policy. Do something about energy instead of posturing and releasing ludicrous soundbites aimed at stopping demonstrations on the M25.

3) Get rid of our crooked and politicised police force and replace it with something that works for everybody.

4). De-politicise the NHS and make it into a healer, not a processor of theories and political correctness.

5) Build a deep water port/container terminal on the west of the UK to improve movement of goods to the extremities. At the moment, huge amounts of fuel and time are wasted trucking everything from the Channel Tunnel or Felixstowe.

To do this we need a Trump because BJ has become a bit of a joke.

Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

We definitely don’t need a Trump – God forbid. But I do agree Boris is a joke.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

Wasn’t sure whether to write this because it does seem hopelessly idealistic and will probably be shot down in flames. However. I am not buying into this very British habit of obsessing about our own decline. We are heading into a different era and one where the kind of consumption that has driven wealth in the last 70-odd years is no longer possible – quite simply because the world does not have the resources to sustain it. Therefore, unless we want to make the scrap for resources even nastier than it’s going to be already then Britain, along with its other Western cousins, are going to have to wind down consumption to some extent – at least as far as some goods are concerned. Other, new industries will come into being and flourish but perhaps we will all have to get a bit poorer in the coming years as things adjust.
Biden and his administration are a bunch of muppets but they have one thing right and that is the way they see China. One of the reasons the West is so weak and fragmented is because we have prioritised consumption and growth, growth, growth at any cost over values-led living. A West that doesn’t know what it stands for anymore is simply a collection of sitting ducks. Obese ones.
Brexit does offer the chance to reconnect to traditional British values of enterprise, freedom and independence – but the success of that will depend on whether the average citizen can be persuaded that living according to these amorphous values is worth putting up with the turbulence that’s coming.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
Laura Cattell
Laura Cattell
2 years ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

I think the short answer to that is ‘no’.

JILL HUDSON
JILL HUDSON
2 years ago
Reply to  Laura Cattell

But I hope will be YES

Tim Bartlett
Tim Bartlett
2 years ago

To my mind a fine, accurate analysis. Does anyone think the Government, opposition or indeed the rest of us have what it takes to grasp the nettle? It’s going to be painful to stop hammering the working poor.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
2 years ago
Reply to  Tim Bartlett

The opposition doesn’t, HMG doesn’t seem like it does but it’s going to have to and the rest of you are going to have to – excuse the clichĂ© – keep calm and carry on.

Last edited 2 years ago by Katharine Eyre
John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“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.”

That’s not what’s going on: it’s simply the creative destruction described by Schumpeter. The problem with the argument is, predictably, Naomi Klein’s straw man nonsense in invoking the circular logic that says capitalism actually creates the destruction in question. The truth is that all political systems make mistakes and cause havoc, what makes capitalism superior is its ability to adapt and self-repair, which works faster and better than other systems. The reason it can do this is that it creates the correct incentives for all participants in the system to be potential winners for solving problems; top down control systems don’t do this because they are primarily motivated to protect the power base of the elites, and their elites always come unstuck as soon as they have to solve new problems.

Andrew Horsman
Andrew Horsman
2 years ago

It’s almost as if it serves the purposes of the aging transhumanist psychopaths pushing a fourth industrial revolution in an egotistical but ultimately futile bid for power over nature, their fellow human beings, and their own mortality to have clowns like Johnson and Trump, and puppets like Biden and Trudeau, in nominal power. Once they have fanned fear, division, and confusion we are all ripe for the picking (or, perhaps more accurately, implanting). It’s what’s happening all around us, right now.

You may wish to dismiss my comment as eccentric conspiracy theory. I would have done exactly that two years ago, and I would in no way blame you for that. And of course I could very well be completely wrong. I genuinely hope I am – and who really knows what is going on out there. But something sure isn’t right, and most us can probably agree that the BBC and the rest of the mainstream media churn out lies on a daily basis and this government is not in full control of what it is doing.

So if you do think my comment a bit whacky or that I am some kind of loon: first of all well done for getting as far as reading the comments on Unherd. Have a house point. I’d now encourage you to turn off your TV set altogether, and look into something much interesting instead: read around the topic of transhumanism as well as about it (Yuval Noah Harari is as good a place as any to start), suspend your prior beliefs, be humble and be prepared to listen to voices you may not have previously listened to; and most of all be prepared to countenance the possibility that there could be a truly radical evil abroad in the world and swaying the decisions of our so-called governments, something so wicked that most of us (including me) struggle to even conceive of it. You might surprise yourself.

Cheryl Jones
Cheryl Jones
2 years ago

I absolutely disagree. The vision was completely transparent in the 2019 election, the juggernaut was hurtling along, there was purpose and energy. Then Covid hit and derailed everything. Not just here but across the world. Boris was very obviously anti lockdown ny Instinct but had to defer to the experts. I’m not sure how it could be expected that we could emerge smoothly from such an economic shock, and no-one has the answers. If it was all truly engineered as part of New World Order’s Great Reset plans then Getting Brexit Done obviously doesn’t follow the script (which might also explain the elites obvious contempt for it) and it makes Boris Public Enemy No.1. The globalists wil stop at nothing, including cutting off our fuel to cow us into submission. Engineer ‘crises’ and blame Brexit and Boris when a cursory investigation reveals otherwise. The media are like a poison. Do they not realise that if you continuously run the country down publicly that this will then result in a self fulfilling prophecy because people will believe it and lose confidence? And confidence is the oil of business, productivity and self-worth. Foreigners wil ignore their own failings and jeer at us, enjoying the feeling of power? It’s a bully’s charter no less. I’m not saying everything is perfect, far from it, but Boris cannot communicate or implement a vision with 2 hands behind his back and a gag over his mouth.

Giles Chance
Giles Chance
2 years ago

I think Boris addressed the broken economic model in his speech of this week. British dependence on cheap immigrant labour is a part of a wider problem: namely, focusing on cost-cutting to maintain or boost profits, rather than taking a 10-, 20- or 30- year view, and investing in people and technology to create a strong, competitive, growing business which can afford to look after and invest in its people properly. No hired British CEO is going to take more than a 3-5 year view because that’s the term of his/her office, and what matters most to a 5-year CEO is profit growth, which drives the share price, the share options and the bonuses. Paying much more for labour is an important part of a big shift in British managerial thinking and approach.

Last edited 2 years ago by Giles Chance