The Tory Right are ready to exploit Johnson’s weakness. Can the Opposition seize the moment?
148 of his own MPs no longer have confidence in the Prime Minister. The ‘rebels’ offer a shared diagnosis of the problem – Johnson’s personal behaviour and its likely electoral consequences, and the chaotic absence of a coherent policy programme. However, they do not agree on the cure, either in terms of who might succeed Johnson or what policy direction the party should move towards.
We have been here many times since Johnson claimed the Tory leadership in July 2019 and won an overwhelming majority in Parliament in December of that year. He, once again, has an opportunity to ‘reset’ his premiership. His allies are hoping that he will be able to conjure up a set of policies, and a narrative, to appeal to both the blue and the red walls, and to repeat his electoral success. There is, once again, fevered speculation about economic policy, the Northern Ireland Protocol and the culture war. His team has a formidable track record of winning elections, but little more than a set of slogans (‘take back control’, ‘get Brexit done’, ‘levelling-up’) to show in policy terms. This is, once again, said to be his ‘last chance’ not to drink at the saloon but to add substance to those beguiling slogans and to stop them sounding ever more tired and inadequate.
It is all too easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and to think that the Tories, a self-proclaimed bunch of lying snakes, with or without Johnson at the helm, will implode. Some seem to think that opposition parties need to do no more than sit back and enjoy the blue-on-blue action and watch as electoral dividends tumble into their grateful laps.
What the above account overlooks is the impact, and strength, of the Tory right. As a close watcher of Brexit, I have lost count of the number of times that the Government has faced inflection points as it made decisions on the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU. On almost every occasion, it has confounded the expectations of moderates by choosing a sovereignty-first version of Brexit, rather than a model aiming to preserve close relations with the EU. It has, for example, refused to countenance the fact that the obvious way to reduce tensions in Northern Ireland is to look for areas in which the UK’s and the EU’s mutual interest is served by commiting to abide by the same, or equivalent, standards. Instead, it has shown, as expressed time and again by David Frost, Suella Braverman, Jacob Rees-Mogg and many others, that it wants divergence from the EU, and that it wants to take advantage of Brexit by wholesale deregulation in the UK.
This embrace of deregulation, of absolutist sovereignty, and of the sovereign individual, has a long tradition on the Tory right. It is supported by a number of this week’s rebels (Steve Baker and Mark Harper among others), as well as many of those Johnson has promoted into the Cabinet, and a long list of the Tories’ donors and backers in the media. The Tory right is a well-organised, well-financed group, with think-tanks churning out evidence to support the chosen policy agenda. MPs who joined together to make common cause in relation to the EU in the European Research Group, did so again in relation to Covid, and are doing so again in relation to net-zero and levelling-up.
The relationship, sometimes symbiotic, sometimes parasitic, between Johnson’s government and the Tory right is intriguing. The Government seeks to give the impression that it is triangulating. Almost every policy is presented as balanced, sensible, ‘common-sense’, and proportionate. The Labour party position, and, in the absence of that, the position of opponents in the centre and on the left, is misstated and dismissed. In the Government rhetoric this straw man position is juxtaposed with that of the Tory right. The Tory right’s position is treated with care. The reasons why the arguments of the right might appeal are set out, and only the hardest edges are rejected, often to resurface weeks or months later.
My suspicion is that the Johnson Government is not ‘at war’ with the Tory right; but that it is testing out the popularity and electoral appeal of the ideas of the Tory right, all the while shifting the Overton window towards their territory. Although we have ended up with a much thinner Brexit deal than almost anyone was predicting in 2016, political debate is centred on how we can free ourselves from any remaining EU ‘shackles’. Calls for a closer relationship with the EU – as for example suggested by Tobias Ellwood – are treated with contempt and as betrayal.
The Tory right, as throughout the Brexit process, brooks no compromise. It has seized on Johnson’s weakness, sensing an opportunity either to exert still more pressure on him or to replace him. They, like almost everyone, have good reason not to trust Johnson – if he sees a route to power which does not accord with their desires, they fear, with good reason, that he will take it. But, as Rafael Behr writes, ‘a wounded prime minister without convictions and desperate for friends is attractive to ideologues whose conditional backing can be wielded as a veto over the government’s agenda’. This week’s attempt to unseat him, which saw support for the PM drain away from all sides of the Tory party, may not have succeeded, but the Tory right is in a position to exploit the weakness, and to insist that he delivers concrete results.
One might wonder why the Tory right has stuck with Johnson for so long. His convictions do not run deep, and his capacity to deliver effective policy is, at best unproven. I think there are at least two reasons. The first is that they believe that they control him, or at least are able to bring him to heel when he strays. The second, is that they believe that he has electoral alchemy, connecting with voters in a way which others on the right may be unable to replicate. The Jubilee booing and the latest opinion polling suggest that his appeal may be waning. If the Tories fail badly in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton, he may fail to survive the next crisis.
It is difficult to predict what the future may hold. My best guess is that we will see a flurry of activity from the government. It will aim to reduce the extent to which the State intervenes in the economy. It will be deregulatory and hostile to the EU. The opposition parties need to be alert to this, and to be ready to respond. In the midst of a cost-of-living crisis, and in the shadow of Covid and the war in Ukraine, the need for government intervention in the economy and for co-operation with democratic allies is urgent and chimes with the public mood. Neither Johnson, nor any likely successor, is willing or able to face down the Tory right. That leaves an opportunity for the opposition to seize the moment.
Phil Syrpis is Professor of EU Law at the University of Bristol Law School
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