That Boris Johnson flunked the IQ test administered on live radio by Nick Ferrari tells us far more about the inadequacy of IQ tests than it does about the Mayor. Mr Johnson is anything but stupid. His Falstaffian bearing hides the mind and soul of Don Draper.
Mad Men’s Draper knew that his charm and intelligence could win pitches that ought to have been beyond his ad agency’s reach. The ordinary rules of the business didn’t apply to him. So Boris Johnson has been able to win votes where the Conservatives normally don’t.
Since 1992, we have retreated from the cities, and lost the support of prosperous, successful, cosmopolitan urban voters; but Boris won them back — twice. He defied the standard model of electoral success, perfected by Tony Blair: identify the Mondeo men and Worcester women, people who live right on Britain’s great class fault line and tell them the things they want to hear, things that are a bit more socially conservative than what Labour finds more comfortable, and a bit more economically redistributive than Tories prefer. The results are the familiar soundbites of centrist politics: tough on crime, immigration and the welfare state for the poor, generous in defence of school education, of the NHS and state pensions, the welfare state for the old.
It worked very well for Labour. The voters targeted worry about a Labour party in thrall to abstract social democratic intellectuals, a sort of bigger version of the Lib Dems with trade unionists attached. But it’s never worked for us. In 2001, 2005, and now as we prepare for 2015, it appears that we conduct focus groups, recycle their contents into speeches and posters, and congratulate ourselves on having identified “popular” policies. While those messages used to extend Labour’s base, they contract ours. They repel urban, liberal, capitalist men and women. In marketing-speak we gain C2s and Ds, but lose ABC1s, and our vote stays stuck at between 33 and 35 per cent. Cameron’s modernisation helped a little but even when fighting against Gordon Brown, in the middle of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, we only got 36.
Now things are worse. For the first time we risk losing votes to our right, to UKIP. The immediate instinct, as if we are flying a plane and notice Nigel Farage clambering across the wing in a purple jumpsuit, specially adapted pint-glass in hand, is to jump out of the cockpit and fight him, but this will just tip the aircraft to one side and divert it from its destination.
If it told itself the truth, the government would admit it had calculated thus: our immigration policies may be expensive (persecuting the customers of our higher-education sector, at a cost of £13 billion per year); weird (why set a target that can only be met if enough people become so fed up with Britain that they clear off?) and pointless (the EU won’t abandon the free movement of people; and if it did, millions of Brits would have to move back here), but they’re popular; and however bad the consequences, they’re not as bad as a Labour government.
This is nothing less than a huge failure of imagination. We’re 2-nil down and can’t think of anything better than once again to hoof the ball up the field and hope it finds Peter Crouch’s head.
When we used to win elections, we won because we understood that we had to address our own weaknesses rather than those of the Labour party. If they have their deserved repute for profligacy and Hampstead-liberal fluffiness, we are accused of being mean-spirited toffs born to privilege, or self-made men who have climbed our way up but don’t take care to make sure the ladders we used are in good repair for people who come after us. And we retain a reputation, that we have still not shaken off, for tolerance of xenophobia and racism, which goes a long way to explain why not being white-British is such a strong predictor of not voting Conservative.
Now Boris Johnson (wisely, given the wilful misinterpretation that his Margaret Thatcher lecture drew from the Hon Dr Tristram Hunt) didn’t utter the truth about economic equality: it’s not just impossible; it’s undesirable. People who invent new products deserve the rewards of their inspiration and perspiration; economic equality can only be maintained by stifling initiative, enervating ambition and lowering expectations. But he understood how essential it was to aim for a society that Churchill described as having a “safety net below which nobody can fall, but above which everyone can rise,” or, as he put it, in which the corn-flake packet is repeatedly “given a good shake” in which creativity, energy, and ambition can drive people to achievements that benefit us all.
He rightly saw that it’s the peculiar British hostility to academic selection that is responsible for keeping the layers of the corn-flake packet so still. Grammar schools gave a generation of children from poor backgrounds opportunities they are now denied, because a good education is too often only available in exchange for eye-watering fees, or the price of a house privileged to be near a good school. Michael Gove’s Free Schools will help somewhat, but a way needs to be found to reintroduce that opportunity, and to provide incentives to study hard, and learn how to defer gratification —incentives to develop what used to be called “virtues” — into our education system. It may not make sense to replicate grammar schools exactly, but some form of academic selection, perhaps more like that which has been so successful in Germany, should be added to the mix. Schools should be able to focus on the children they educate rather than serve as factories for social engineering.
Seven years ago Sayeeda Warsi assembled for the policy group I was on a group of Muslims from Dewsbury. None were Conservative voters. After some hours discussing security, counter-terrorism and the Iraq war, we finally asked them what was the one thing we could do to win their vote. We expected them to talk about Iraq, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or perhaps even Kashmir. Their response was unanimous: “Bring back grammar schools.”