There is a growing sense among the Conservative Party that Boris Johnson’s performance as Prime Minister would be much better if he was a little less Boris Johnson.
Members do not express their thoughts in these terms. They praise their leader’s winning ways with voters, but regret that his program is not targeted. They are grateful for the boost Covid vaccinations have given their ratings in the polls, but complain the dividend is wasted as tough decisions are not made. They admire the way Johnson with words, but despair of the way he mismanages people.
Every political dish is covered with a rhetorical condiment – “the leveling up” was the “catch-up ketchup”Last week – without meat underneath. This week there is a stew of initiatives targeting crime and anti-social behavior: more tagging and CCTV, offenders on duty to pick up trash, extended stops and searches. The Police Federation, aggrieved by the wage freeze, calls it a gadget. This will not satisfy the thirst for substance of the Conservative members. They should know the menu by now.
Johnson can no more exercise strategic diligence than Theresa May could dazzle with a skilful mind. It doesn’t come naturally and cannot be faked. The Conservative Party chose its current leader precisely because he was not interested in the practical reality of government. May failed because she tried to get Brexit done in a technical and meaningful sense. Johnson triumphed by doing it in the realm of the pure imagination and taking with him a lot of people who couldn’t conceive of voting Tory under someone else.
There is tension between the victorious force that is “Boris” – a one-off phenomenon – and the Conservative Party as an institution that would like to have a future in government under less capricious leadership. It’s easy to forget that there were two national elections in 2019 and that the Conservatives were humiliated in the first – the European parliamentary elections in which they came in fifth, behind Greens, Labor, Liberals – Democrats and, first and foremost, the Brexit Party. .
It was a crazy result under extreme conditions, but it was not the first time that British voters have shown interest in breaking the duopoly of the two main parties. It is already irreparable in Scotland. David Cameron believed the political pendulum was swinging in 2010, only to find it hanging on to a spike in support for the Lib Dems. Their tenacity as a third-party spoiler is itself a legacy of SDP’s brief breakthrough in the 1980s.
This schism’s failure to break the bipartisan mold is what persuaded many opponents of Jeremy Corbyn to stick with Labor even when they felt their party had been captured by dangerous fanatics. Some moderates resign on points of principle. Most of them remained seated and waited for the Corbynite tide to recede. But the high water swept tens of thousands of new members, with the result that Labor became, in effect, two parties – one for the moderate Social Democrats and a radical Socialist challenger. In continental European countries with proportional electoral systems, no one expects these two tribes to live under one roof.
So are national populists and orthodox conservatives who mingle under Johnson’s banner. The Tories have solved their party’s Brexit problem with full assimilation, and some MPs are arguing that this is a lasting deal. The prime minister, they say, is charting new central ground. It leans left on the economy (borrowing money to spend on things like voters) and leans right on cultural values (extending the perpetual repression of immigration). It upsets small state Thatcherites, fiscal hawks and social liberals, but it ticks enough boxes with the public to prevent opposition from power for at least another term.
Another view is that only a ‘Boris effect’ brings together an unlikely alliance of former Labor mainstays, county Tories, and people who just couldn’t stand the idea of Corbyn as prime minister. In this interpretation, there is no alchemy of a new central ground nor a roadmap for 21st century conservatism: just old-fashioned charisma, more luck.
It’s hard to know anyway because allegiances have been so volatile in recent years. In the aftermath of the Brexit referendum, the identities of leavers and remnants seemed to have supplanted previous loyalties. Pro-European conservatives met the anti-Corbyn faction of Labor in a symmetrical centrist retreat from their respective leaders. “None of the above” has skyrocketed in opinion polls. The whips have lost control of their parties. The deputies changed sides or declared themselves independent.
But when it came to the 2017 and 2019 general elections, the first-party system and the question of who should be prime minister had their usual effect. When only two parties can credibly claim to be No. 10 candidates, votes are redirected to the old red and blue channels.
In the absence of electoral reform, there is no obvious reason for the trend to change. And yet, it is unhealthy and unstable that the country’s two major parties can only sustain each other by polarizing mutual animosity and a system that stifles political startups. This is how we now have a Labor Party where admirers of Corbyn in exile coexist with supporters of the successor who banned him. This is how we have a Conservative Prime Minister whose superpower is to persuade people to overlook the fact that he is a Conservative.
It is appropriate for Labor and Conservatives to tell people that each is the only alternative to the other. They have to pretend that the votes cast under these conditions indicate popular support. But that insults the intelligence of all those who stuck their noses in 2019 and marked the ballot with closed fists in frustration at the proposed choice.
There is less volatility on the surface now, but the deeper currents are, I guess, still turbulent. The two big political brands have primacy in a failing market. It is not easy to imagine what will be the force that will disturb their arrangement. But that is the nature of dramatic change. It’s unimaginable until it happens, how much everyone agrees it was inevitable.