Johnson’s Tory party: how it started, how it’s going

Boris Johnson has been prime minister for just over two years. During this time there have been at least eleven political resignations by ministers, a series of national scandals around coronavirus rules, internal battles over Brexit, and a long series of policy U-turns. Colin Wilson surveys the position of the conservative party and what this means for the left today.

 23/12/2020. London, United Kingdom. Boris Johnson Brexit Deal.The Prime Minister Boris Johnson in his office in Number 10 with his key members of staff as they wait for a response from President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen after they spoke on the phone a few minutes earlier with a possible Brexit deal in sight. Picture by Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
Number 10 | Flickr

It’s no surprise that the Johnson government has few fans on the left – thousands of unnecessary pandemic deaths, attacks on migrants, an undemocratic policing bill, NHS pay and more. But what’s even more striking is how little backing they have from people you’d expect to support them. Plans to cut crime including ‘fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs’ were quickly dismissed by multiple police chiefs, with one calling them ‘just weird’. Hikes in National Insurance to pay for care were kicked into the long grass after backbench Tory objections.

So, how should we describe the government’s politics? I’d suggest that you can distinguish four kinds of right-wing government, depending on their attitude to democracy and the state – understanding, of course, that under capitalism ‘democracy’ is very limited, and the power of the state is always backed up by violence. First, there are fascist regimes, such as the Nazis, who abolish democracy completely and rule through terror. Second, there are what I’ll call ‘far right’ governments, such as those of Trump or Modi. They take advantage of democracy at times and undermine it at others. They encourage their supporters to go into the streets and to use violence. Third, there is what I’ll describe as the ‘hard right’, exemplified by Thatcher. These governments carry out a programme of attacks through parliamentary democracy. This programme is backed up, where necessary, by state violence, including that of the police, but Thatcherism never involved her supporters coming onto the streets. (People on the left back then, quite rightly appalled by Thatcher, often claimed she was a fascist, which wasn’t true.) Fourth is what you could call ‘mainstream Conservatism’. Typified by Cameron, its main concern is to defend the capitalist status quo – including attacks on migrants, police violence and racism, and the gradual privatisation of the NHS.

Thatcherite or harder right

Where does the Johnson government fit into this picture? On some topics the government sticks to a hard-right position. During the first months of the lockdown, police in London stopped and searched the equivalent of 1 in 4 black men aged 15-24 though they had committed no crime. The Police Bill is a serious attack on democracy. Priti Patel’s plans to process asylum applications offshore are unprecedented and barbaric. 

But the government also has a long track record of U-turns and retreats. At the end of July Sajid Javid tweeted about people ’cowering’ in the face of Covid, then deleted the tweet the next day. The previous week, Johnson and Sunak weren’t going to self-isolate when they were ‘pinged’, only to U-turn three hours later. The start of stage 4 of the Covid roadmap, all but certain to happen in June, was postponed till July. Schools were going back at the start of January, until there was a delay and staggered re-openings. Marcus Rashford forced two government U-turns – first over school meals during the summer holidays, and then about the replacement of meals vouchers with inadequate ‘food parcels’.

The track record of wobbling and incompetence has infuriated Tory party members. It’s open season on Matt Hancock – no longer health minister and now threatened with deselection – with one local Tory councillor telling the Guardian that ‘I thought he was a knob from the get-go.’

Not just incompetent

The problems go beyond a misjudged tweet or announcement to bigger policy questions. Key government priorities include ‘building the strength of the Union’ and ‘increasing opportunities across the country’, so ‘levelling up’ deprived English towns. Yet the government has no arguments – not just no good arguments, but no arguments at all – as to why Scots should reject independence. Johnson’s speech last month on levelling up lacked detail beyond some talk of local mayors, with a former cabinet minister commenting that ‘there isn’t much of a coherent idea behind it’. The government won’t make clear its plans for Northern Powerhouse Rail investment to improve train services between major northern cities, and even the future of HS2 north of Birmingham is in doubt.

Housing is a political minefield for the Tories. The percentage of working-age people with a mortgage fell from over 55 percent in 1993 to around 40 percent in 2017. House prices have increased threefold in real terms since Thatcher left office – back then, a remarkable 1 in 3 people aged 16 to 24 were home owners. Young people now can’t get secure housing, don’t see capitalism delivering for them and don’t vote Tory. In response, the government aims to abolish planning controls and so get thousands more homes built – but new houses in the green belt will reduce the value of the existing homes, often occupied by existing Tory voters, and those people may desert the Conservatives at the polls, as they did in the Chesham and Amersham by-election. Either way, the Tories lose.

Internationally, further quandaries await. No one in government has any idea how to resolve the customs situation in the north of Ireland, beyond saying it’s all the fault of the EU. The Defence Review stresses the importance of British involvement in the Pacific region, but British trade with countries like Australia or Singapore is a tiny fraction of trade with the EU. The government plans to permanently deploy two warships in the Asia-Pacific region – yet those plans were dismissed last month by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, who commented that ‘the UK can be more helpful in other parts of the world’.

A ‘rudderless’ party

For right-wing commentators, this is not just about the unprecedented challenges of the pandemic or serial incompetence – it’s about the government’s politics. The Financial Times reports that top Tory donors, who have given the party a quarter million each and so qualified as members of its Advisory Board, are ‘Thatcherite free marketeers’ who are ‘fed up with all this state intervention’. At the end of July, the Telegraph, Johnson’s former employer and previously a booster for his leadership, published an article headlined ‘The rudderless, Labour-lite Tories face an autumn of political carnage’. That paper, as well as the right-wing Spectator, regularly complain that the government are not following the hard-right, Thatcherite policies they favour.

Some in the government – Priti Patel foremost among them – are pushing just those Thatcherite policies. But Johnson is no Thatcher, working hard on four hours sleep a night to build a coalition of support for a programme of class war. Right-wing columnists have talked about making Britain into Singapore-on-Thames through a wave of privatisation and deregulation on a similar scale to the changes Thatcher made – but not a single concrete proposal has been forthcoming. So, most of the time, the government moves in a zigzag fashion, trying to be hard right but wobbling and U-turning when they face opposition, so that their overall direction is much more like an orthodox Tory government than Thatcherite radicals.

There are two kinds of reasons for this. The first are the accidental, short-term factors, such as the pandemic and the personalities of the main players – Johnson is too lazy and complacent to develop a coherent strategy and win support for it. Much more important are long-term, structural problems facing the British ruling class and a Tory party which aims to be its political representative.

Brexit, first, represents a major shift in direction. It’s been the common sense of the ruling class for over fifty years that Britain’s future lay with what became the EU – Britain first applied to join in 1963. No one knows how a post-Brexit economy will work out. At the very least it means a threat to the financial services industry in south east England on which government finances depend – the FT, for example, is running a series of articles entitled London fights for its future

The second major structural change is that around the world, governments are moving away from the orthodoxy that states shouldn’t make strategic interventions in markets. The big success story of the world economy in the last twenty years is China, where much of the economy is state-controlled. The success of China is what’s motivating Biden to push for a huge $4 trillion investment in infrastructure and jobs, of which $579bn for roads, broadband and electricity facilities was agreed in June. Meanwhile, the EU is worried by its lack of semiconductor manufacturing capacity, and is doing a $20bn deal with Intel. Strategic management of production by states appears to be back, though there’s no sign of the return of post-war welfare spending.

After neo-liberalism?

It is perhaps premature to proclaim the death of neoliberalism, but Brexit and the return of the economically directive state certainly put us in a very different world from that of Thatcher, and the government can’t now do as she did and sell off public utilities to help it out. Thatcherism no longer fits the situation, and they have to develop an alternative. That alternative is likely to involve a few strategic ideas and a lot of improvising, just as Thatcherism itself was based on a few key ideas – free market economics, attacking the unions – but was mostly developed on the hoof. 

The shift from the post-war consensus to neoliberalism took place over about ten years, starting with huge public spending cuts made under Labour, and only coming into full flower after Thatcher’s victories in the Falklands and over the miners, and indeed over traditional Tories in her own party. We may be at the start of a similar period of transition now.

But, whatever the longer-term picture, right-wing authors who want a British Trump or an Orbán know they don’t have one. Their strategy is to borrow ideas wholesale from the American hard right, to wage a ‘war on woke’ that attacks not just trans people or Black Lives Matter, but condemns multinationals, the BBC and Oxbridge colleges for embracing neoliberal rhetoric around diversity. Attacks on ‘left-wing elites’ play well with the Tory base, but it’s doubtful how many other people they attract. They certainly don’t amount to a strategy for British capitalism. 

The Tories may look powerful, mostly because of Starmer’s pitiful opposition from the Labour right and the damage he has done to the left. It’s important that we oppose the hard right policies – on migration and public order – that some ministers are pushing. But their overall political direction remains confused, while the millions who supported Corbyn, or Black Lives Matter a year ago, are still there. The left has its share of problems – out of which, working out how to organise is the biggest.  But we should remember that this is a government which has repeatedly backed down in the face of determined opposition, and we can build on those successes.

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