The writer is professor of government at King’s College, London
Britain badly needs a sense of direction. It is confronting challenges more serious than any seen since the 1970s — soaring food costs and energy prices, looming stagflation, a crumbling health service. Yet all three parties find themselves drifting without a compass. Since the end of the Tony Blair/ Gordon Brown era in 2010, Labour has seemed uncertain of its mission. The Liberal Democrats have yet to explain how a party opposing New Labour from the left for 13 years could then join a Conservative-led coalition.
But the problem is even more stark for the governing party. Political commentators are currently preoccupied with whether Boris Johnson can survive. The only sensible answer is that no one knows. But there are two far more important questions: what explains his success so far, and how is a post-Johnson Britain to be governed?
Johnson is a product of post-2008 politics, the politics of the financial crisis. The left hoped that the ensuing recession, which appeared to mark the failure of neoliberalism and the concept of self-regulating markets, would herald a social democratic moment. Instead it heralded a nationalist one, just as it had done after the Wall Street crash in 1929. This gave rise, on the continent, to a particularly vicious form of populism — fascism and national socialism. Then as now, recession weakened class feeling while strengthening national solidarity. On both occasions, alienation benefited the right, not the left, but the radical not the conservative right.
After 2008, the politics of ideas came to be replaced by the politics of identity. Successful politicians appreciated this. Brexit leaders Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage proclaimed not that Remainers were too leftwing or too rightwing, but that they were insufficiently British. Nicola Sturgeon insists that the United Kingdom parties are insufficiently Scottish, Marine Le Pen that En Marche, Republicans and Socialists are insufficiently French, Donald Trump that Democrats and traditional Republicans failed to put America first.
But in Britain Brexit has undermined the nationalists and, paradoxically, freed us from populism. Time and again, evidence has shown that we are now more welcoming to immigrants than almost every EU member state. Voters, it is clear, wanted immigration controlled but not ended. British nationalism is now largely channelled into the unifying royalism of the platinum jubilee.
Johnson not only understood the post-2008 direction of British politics. His very lack of philosophical underpinning has enabled him to cover up ideological divisions in the Conservative party.
The Brexit cheerleaders — Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood and Daniel Hannan — hoped it would resurrect Thatcherism. And indeed the logic is for Britain to become a free trade hub, lowering personal and corporate taxation and ripping up regulations and subsidies, a programme sometimes caricatured as Singapore on Thames, but more akin to government policies in Australia and New Zealand after the 1970s. Their liberalising policies, though successful in the long run, caused great short-term pain.
A resurrection of Thatcherism was probably never practicable in Britain, but the pandemic has rendered it quite impracticable, since it has led to a cry for more government intervention, not less, and a greater role for the state in remedying inequalities.
The footsoldiers of Brexit — many of them “left behind” voters in the Red Wall seats — had a very different programme from that of the cheerleaders. They sought shelter from what they saw as the excesses of globalisation. That is the urge to which Johnson responds when he compares himself to Michael Heseltine — Hezza — but, as he puts it, a “Brexity Heeza”. So his government’s answer to economic difficulty is more spending and larger subsidies. Rishi Sunak has injected twice as much into the economy as Brown did in 2008, and government spending is now expected, for the first time in history, to exceed £1tn. In 2019, Conservatives insisted that Jeremy Corbyn had no magic money tree. They seem now to have discovered a magic money forest.
But Johnson also appeases free marketeers by hinting that he really agrees with them, telling the cabinet on Tuesday that he was a tax-cutting Tory and would shrink the state. Like Don Giovanni, he probably means it when he says it.
The energies of the Conservative party are currently focused not on policy, but on their leader — should he stay or go? But when he does go, they will have to answer the question they have dodged since Thatcher’s demise: what sort of party are they to be? With the end of populism, pressure for state intervention will threaten Tory hegemony since, so voters will argue, the left can do it better.
Until Thatcher’s victory in 1975, Tory leadership contests were not about policy but about who was best placed to manage the postwar consensus. Since then, they have become about policy. But in the post-Brexit Tory party, there is no consensus on the right way forward. A leadership contest with no obvious successor, far from resolving the party’s problems, could expose them. Perhaps Conservatives should be careful what they wish for.