Tim Montgomerie is the founder of ConservativeHome and is a contributor to Reaction.
‘He is the most remarkable politician of our age’. ‘The most formidable of election winners’. ‘His recipe of extra showbiz and a small side of policy fits our celebrity age perfectly’.
‘The economy’s iron lady’ of 40 years ago might famously have been against turning, but Boris Johnson prefers to see himself as the voters’ ‘flexible friend’. Oozing self-confidence, he does not feel restrained by the rules that Margaret Thatcher laid down, and which inhibit ‘principled, conviction politicians’ who – bless them – see ideas and policies as defining their mission.
And, electorally, he is fundamentally right that turning towards target voters is rarely a bad thing in this age of consumerist-programmed minds. Brits, increasingly used to getting precisely what they want from their shopping platforms; or in their entertainment, travel and leisure options; and even, perhaps especially, in their bedroom activities, like this servant leadership/ political pragmatism/ naked opportunism. (You can choose what to call it!).
Average voters are certainly more keen than the many newspapers and pundits who sell themselves as partly ideological, truth-telling products.
If, therefore, you are a politician who tends to be shamelessly, relentlessly obsessed about retaining power, then shuffle, shift, switch and even somersault your (dizzying) journey through elected office.
And all that s-bending is especially plausible for politicians who, happy days, via one big issue (like Brexit) already possess a loyal core of voters, and can consequently enjoy greater licence on almost everything else (as long as that litmus first big impression stays intact).
Four decades after the Iron Lady, our Flexible Friend in Number 10 isn’t relaxed about how he shifts his shape, however. This Downing Street’s u-turnery is almost scientific in its precision.
Directed by a government polling operation that is so gargantuan, pricey and relentless that it would make Blair and Clinton blush, ‘The Boris Offer’ is sold as ever-fresh and usually one step ahead or, at worst, barely one step behind opposition parties, and their ever more uphill search for issues that will give them an advantage over the Government.
So, in short, the Boris approach is an electorally effective one but – of course there is a but. The shape-shifting eventually becomes all that there is. The ruling party and government loses its principles and character. Incoherence can follow. Commitment from allies weakens. It stops attracting candidates and thinkers who aspire to be more than door-to-door salesmen. Policy innovation dries up as donors give up on think tanks who are unable to devise policies that can readily survive a run of bad focus groups or negative newspaper splashes.
The thinner set of policies that do succeed in getting to drafting stage in government don’t benefit from the Rolls Royce-style lab and road-testing that (allegedly) the civil service once lavished on them. And who can blame a seasoned Sir Humphry, government backbencher or even expert outside volunteer for judging that any time they give to the nurture of ambitious projects will very likely be wasted. Because ambitious almost always means risky, and risky – in any government that fears short-term unpopularity – equals project termination.
Angela Merkel, and last Sunday’s collapse in her party’s vote, is something of a cautionary tale for the British Conservative Party in these early years of “flexibility”.
Mutti’s innate caution might have been the main driver of the German experience – rather than the same BorisInc desire to turn politics into a branch of market research – but the basic inoffensiveness of pitch, and therefore the consequent lack of big mission, are shared features.
Political popularity appears to be broad and sustained but, when it eventually is exhausted, the falling away of support is dramatic. No one is loyal to you because you weren’t ever loyal to much that – at core – they really cared about. The popularity may be of long duration for ‘flexipols’ like Johnson and Merkel, but the list of big achievements ends up being pretty short. Big geopolitical problems like the rise of authoritarian China or dependence on energy from a gangster state like Russia only tend to grow even bigger.
During Merkel’s 16 years, Germany’s Christian Democrats ceased to be adequately distinguishable from the leftish Social Democrats. But it’s not too late for the Conservative Party to fight to stay robustly Conservative.
On tax, free markets, support for the family, basic civil liberties, the essential equality of the four Union nations, and in the fundamental character of our foreign and defence policies, the early sense of drift is real. The electoral operation and philosophy behind Johnson are formidable, but they should serve our mission and not, bit by bit, supplant it.
Those rightist scribblers in newspapers and online who have recently – and in chorus – written obituaries for conservatism and/or Thatcherism are premature. The warning signs are real though. And the fightback must become real too.