June 7, 2022

As Boris Johnson reels from last night’s leadership vote, attention has naturally focused on his personal failings. But what if the problem runs deeper? Of the eight Conservative leaders between 1970 and 2019, six were broken on the wheel of party dissent. So why has a party once famed for its iron discipline become so difficult to govern? And why has Johnson’s political magic seemingly lost its unifying charm?

British parties are always fractious coalitions. First Past the Post requires parties to hold together an unstable alliance of forces, with divergent interests, priorities and visions. Labour has struggled throughout its history to bind together Fabians, Left-liberals, trade unionists, socialists and social democrats. The Conservative Party has been an explosive cocktail of Thatcherites, protectionists, free-marketeers, Powellites, paternalists and Christian conservatives. For a party to succeed, it needs some shared gravitational field that can contain its centrifugal impulses: a role played in Conservative history by hostility to socialism, the defence of established institutions, the rights of property and a “conservative temperament”.

Since the end of the Cold War, it has been increasingly difficult to say what Conservatives have in common. They are no longer anchored in historic institutions, such as the Crown or the Church of England. They have lost their suspicion of change. They are no longer rooted in British business, and they can no longer mobilise against Communism at home and abroad. That leaves only the party’s notorious instinct for power. As a unifying force, that instinct should not be underrated: it makes the Conservatives much more likely than Labour to mobilise behind a perceived “winner”. But it also leaves any leader dangerously vulnerable if they begin to slide in the polls.

The party’s loss of cohesion was not resolved by the purge of 2019, or even the massive majority won at the general election. Johnson’s majority, like the Leave vote on which it was founded, was built on highly discordant materials: elements of which wanted to shrink the state, end austerity, cut taxes and boost spending. Those elements were held together by two magnetic impulses that were peculiar to that election: hostility to Jeremy Corbyn; and the desire to “Get Brexit Done”. With Corbyn gone and Britain outside the EU, holding that coalition together would prove a task of particular delicacy.

Covid temporarily suspended that difficulty, because it suspended the usual rules of politics. Spending could rise, taxes fall and divisive questions be held over to another day — all in the name of a national emergency that discouraged political dissent. But as the Covid crisis recedes, the choices confronting the government are becoming more pressing; and for divided parties, choice is dangerous.

Johnson was in some respects well-placed to lead a party that was pulling in opposing directions. Throughout his career he has poured himself into a variety of ideological moulds, projecting different political personas to different sections of his party. As Mayor of London, he championed immigration, celebrated multiculturalism and called Donald Trump “unfit to hold the office of President”. As a Brexit campaigner, he mocked the “part-Kenyan” Obama and promised to “take back control” of Britain’s borders. As prime minister, he suspended Parliament and threatened to ignore legislation. That has allowed him to straddle his party’s divisions, to a degree unmatched by almost any other politician.

Johnson is not an Enoch Powell or a Tony Benn. He is not the sort of politician who sets an intellectual pole-star and drags his party along behind it. But nor is he simply a “weathervane”, who follows the prevailing political wind. Instead, his great skill is an ability to defy definition, by sending conflicting signals about his beliefs and intentions.

As Johnson approaches his 60th birthday, people still argue about what kind of politician he is “really”, or what he might become in the future. Is he a liberal? A populist? A “one-nation” Tory? A culture warrior? “Britain Trump”? Or a “Brexity Hezza”? Ambiguity is an underrated political skill, and Johnson has it in spades.

Johnson’s ability to hold those roles in creative tension — or in his favoured expression, to “have his cake and eat it” — has been a feature of his career. It rests on a series of rhetorical techniques, honed during his years as a journalist and public speaker. But the efficacy of those techniques has been declining in recent months: not because of “Partygate” – though that may have calcified a certain image in the eyes of the public — but because of changes in the economic climate.

Johnson’s favoured technique is rhetorical extravagance. Promises to “ping off the guy-ropes of self-doubt”, or to unleash “the ketchup of catch-up”, or to inflate “the mattress of dough” commit him to nothing, but they give an impression of energy and authenticity.  The effect is enhanced by a macho political style: one that scoffs at “girly swots” and “big girls blouses”, and parades a love of fast cars, hi-vis jackets, grandiose building projects and shagging. The result is an unusual combination of artful ambiguity and performative purpose.

That runs alongside a self-parodying political style. It is not unknown for politicians to feign sincerity; Johnson, by contrast, actively performs insincerity. He deliberately strips his words of meaning, by rhetorical exaggeration, ludicrous turns of phrase and the knowing look down the camera. No other politician so consistently breaks “the fourth wall” in interviews, inviting the public to be in on the joke of his own performance. It becomes impossible to hold him to what he has said, because anything can be dismissed as a joke.

This has enabled Johnson to cultivate a reputation for dynamism, while sending conflicting signals on his politics. Johnson has been a prolific writer and public speaker for nearly 30 years. But if we set aside the insults and the gaffs (“tank-topped bum-boys”, “picaninnies”, “clearing the dead bodies from the beach”), few people could quote a word he has ever said. When challenged about his past comments, Johnson invariably seems astonished that anyone should have taken them seriously. For Johnson, ideas and arguments are like rhetorical flares: sent up into the sky to awe and amaze, while distracting from the emptiness around them.

So long as politics centred on issues of culture and identity, Johnson’s political style could be highly effective. But economic questions are less susceptible to this kind of rhetorical mystification: and those questions are moving remorselessly up the political agenda.

2022 may come to be seen, in retrospect, as the end of a 30-year period of consistently low inflation. Such periods are peculiarly hospitable to “cakeism”, because they soften the competition for resources. By contrast, inflation sharpens political choices: do you raise taxes or cut spending? Subsidise energy bills, or let the market decide? Inflation is already reopening debates about monetary policy, public ownership and the independence of the Bank of England, while wages, industrial action and the cost of living are all surging up the political agenda. The effect is to bring economic and distributional questions back into the political mainstream, opening up questions on which the party is deeply divided.

Such questions play to all of Johnson’s weaknesses and none of his strengths. Tax rates, wage bills, fuel costs and supermarket bills are not susceptible to his peculiar brand of rhetorical mystification; and voters struggling with rising bills and falling living standards may be less forgiving of a politics of distraction. It is no coincidence that his speech to the Confederation of British Industry in 2021, in which he repeatedly lost his place and joked about Peppa Pig, landed so badly, when equally chaotic speeches on other subjects have drawn laughter and acclaim.

Johnson himself has no economic policy to speak of. His approach to economics — like his view of history — centres almost entirely on heroic individuals: those “entrepreneurs” and “wealth creators”, for whose “concupiscent energy and sheer wealth-creating dynamism” we should give “humble and hearty thanks”. Discussing post-Brexit trade barriers earlier this year, he told MPs: “There is no natural impediment to our exports, it is just will and energy and ambition”. There is not much here for policy-makers to work with, at a moment when policy is badly needed.

On economic questions, at least, “to govern is to choose”. Yet every choice Johnson makes on tax rates, energy bills or public spending infuriates some wing of his party, eager for higher spending, lower taxes, more intervention or more deregulation. And as Brexit moves from rhetoric to reality, the choices already made grow harder to ignore. Johnson can give his party no star to steer by, for he has none. His political compass points only at himself.

Johnson’s leadership is a symptom, not a cause, of his party’s loss of cohesion and direction. For that reason, it cannot also be a cure — though it may, like a fever, bring the illusion of vigour and short-lived colour to the cheeks. Whether or not Johnson survives the consequences of yesterday’s vote, Conservatism is in a parlous state. It will take a very different skill-set than his to restore it to health and vitality.

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