October 27, 2021

To watch Rishi Sunak deliver his Budget, one could be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party is a very different beast from its ‘age of austerity’ predecessor led by David Cameron and George Osborne. But, in reality, is the contrast so sharp? Isn’t what we’re seeing par for the course when it comes to a party which has always adapted to the spirit of the age?

The Conservatives can lay claim to be the world’s oldest and most successful political party precisely because, in order to hang on to power and prevent (or at least limit) any truly significant redistribution of power and wealth, they have always been prepared to mix and match policies in way that both appeals to a wide electorate and also makes pinning them down ideologically feel like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

Admittedly, at first glance, the impression of a party totally transformed is easy to run away with. After all, Cameron and Osborne, as well as insisting on balancing the books no matter what the cost to the nation’s deteriorating public services and rising poverty levels, were often portrayed as modernisers hell-bent on dragging the Tories kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Johnson on the other hand, whatever the cosmopolitan image he worked hard to create as Mayor of London, seems happy to cosplay the authoritarian populist — the leader of a party determined to engage in a ‘war on woke’, to defend the interests of businesses big and small, and to allow nationalism to trump his party’s traditional commitment to economic rationality.

But let’s look, first, a little closer at the Conservative Party under Cameron. Sure, it brought in equal marriage after it made it into government in 2010. But it had to rely on the votes of the opposition Labour Party to do so, since so many of its own MPs rejected the change. Similarly, while Cameron in opposition began by hugging huskies, he ended his time in Number Ten by demanding his colleagues “get rid of all the green crap” — meaning it was left to his unfortunate successor Theresa May to commit the country to net zero. Meanwhile, Cameron’s Conservatives also spent a great deal of time and effort both bringing in draconian policies (accompanied by equally draconian rhetoric) to try and crack down on immigration and badmouthing the European Union — all of which helped fuel the rise of UKIP and ultimately led to Cameron’s fateful decision to call the 2016 referendum.

As for austerity, there is no doubt that it was a reality after 2010 — but far more so for some parts of the state, and some people, than others. The NHS, as it may do now, escaped the bulk of the cuts foisted on so many other public services, while folk on pensions — unlike younger people and the poor — actually did relatively well, presumably because they constituted (and continue to constitute) such an important part of the Conservatives’ voter coalition. Admittedly, policing did suffer cuts, but that didn’t stop the party under Cameron continuing to call its main opponent ‘soft on crime’, as well as framing Labour as the party of immigrants, Europhiles, students, the chattering classes and supposedly work-shy welfare claimants.

So what about the party under Johnson? True, Sunak has raised rather than cut taxes, including corporation tax — a move which, notwithstanding reliefs on R&D and temporary cuts to high-street business rates, some pearl-clutching neoliberals will doubtless still insist on seeing as the very incarnation of Johnson’s characteristically unguarded (but also characteristically pretty meaningless) “Fuck Business!” remark. But few if any of those tax rises is remotely progressive, not least the increase in National Insurance which the party pretends will ‘fix social care’ (it won’t). Nor is there any serious suggestion of moving to tax wealth or property to anything like the extent that a serious rebalancing of the economy would require. The hike in the National Living Wage is, of course, welcome, although let’s not forget that it was George ‘austerity’ Osborne who invented the concept in the first place!

Meanwhile, Sunak rescinded his boost to welfare benefits prompted by the pandemic as soon as decently possible — a decision which, for those not in work, will not be compensated for by his eye-catching (and indeed welcome) reduction in Universal Credit’s taper rate. Nor is the Government providing anywhere near enough funding to help poorer pupils who missed so much school catch-up. The same arguably goes for climate change policy, where, especially after the Government’s policy announcements in the run up to COP26, it’s getting harder and harder to escape the feeling that the Tories under Johnson, not for the first time, seem happy to will the ends but not the means.

As for spending more generally, while capital spending and infrastructure projects have received an expected boost, day-to-day government spending (much of which filters down, or rather doesn’t filter down to local authorities) is going to be as tight as ever, making the Government’s endlessly repeated talk about ‘levelling up’ a little hard to credit — unless, of course, we’re talking about money funnelled not to those most in need but to those constituencies in the Midlands and the North which flipped to the Conservatives in 2019 and which Johnson and his colleagues are understandably desperate to hold onto.

For all that, barring an economic meltdown in which the cost-of-living crunch really does become a crisis and the various trading frictions associated with Brexit get worse rather than better, they stand a pretty good chance of doing so.

The voter coalition that Brexit enabled Johnson to build is made up of older voters, of sometimes ethnocentric, not particularly well-educated, intensely patriotic voters living in small towns, and of more affluent voters in already well-served parts of the country who (if they are better-educated and so socially more liberal) are prepared to set aside their discomfort with the Brussels-bashing and the culture wars so long as their taxes are kept reasonably low and their precious house prices kept high. And, like Brexit — indeed precisely because Brexit continues to simmer even if it no longer boils — that voter coalition, whose geographical distribution is nicely suited to Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, doesn’t seem done yet.

Certainly I wouldn’t bet on those voters taking seriously against the Budget even if it doesn’t fall hook, line and sinker for Sunak’s ‘new age of optimism’ line as much as his adoring fandom in the Tory-supporting press. They know, we know, that this is the British Conservative Party — doing whatever it takes, two-and-a-half centuries and counting. Rishi or no Rishi, there is nothing new under the sun.