Stewart Jackson is a former Conservative MP and Special Adviser, and is the Founder and Director of UK Political Insight.
Aside from whether or not you believe his premiership is terminal or can still be rescued, Boris Johnson’s decision this weekend to bring both Guto Harri and Steve Barclay into Downing Street and into key leadership roles, is shrewd and badly needed.
Harri is a Remainer and a free spirit, but also a consummate communications professional unafraid to challenge the groupthink and complacency that has dogged Downing Street since at least the departure of Dominic Cummings.
Barclay also is a smart guy – hard working, clever, well liked in the Parliamentary party and as a former aide to a Party Chairman (Liam Fox during the run-up to the 2005 election), candidate for a marginal seat (Lancaster and Wyre in 2001) and whip, he has an instinct for what makes backbench MPs and activists tick.
Ditto, David Canzini, who may or may not join the team. Having worked with him, I can attest that you’d definitely want this hyper-focused party veteran in the trench next to you. A rapprochement between Number Ten and the troops in the Commons is the most necessary ingredient before any Johnson administration reset or relaunch can even have a chance of success.
However, this is not going to be another “whither Boris Johnson/Carrie Johnson?” column: the market for them is somewhat crowded at present.
Fundamentally, any Conservative revival from horrible polls and ratings on both policies and personalities must answer voters’ most urgent question, asked now and every day until the next election comes: “What’s the point of voting Conservative?”
Even if Johson survives his current Gotterdammerung, and emerges from the bunker stronger; or indeed if a usurpation results in a Liz Truss, Rishi Sunak, Jeremy Hunt [add name here]..premiership, just being different to what went before will not be enough. Voters are sophisticated and nuanced and they want competence and seriousness, and not just bread and circuses.
It was always going to be incredibly difficult post 2019 – even without the global pandemic and Brexit and with a benign economy – for any Tory Prime Minister to keep together the potent electoral coalition which emerged by serendipity from the failures of the May Government and the insanity of the hard Left Corbyn coup d’etat which eviscerated Labour.
To paraphrase Mario Cuomo; Boris was always able to campaign in poetry but it would be the devil’s job governing in prose. Affluent southern Remain-supporting Tories held their nose voting Conservative for fear of the apocalypse which Corbyn would visit upon their mortgages, savings, businesses and pensions. Likewise, for many new working class voters in such seats as Workington, West Bromwich West, Burnley, Leigh and North West Durham, voting Tory was a huge Rubicon to cross both culturally and politically. Clearly, It was Johnson and Corbyn wot won it across a heterogeneous electorate.
Arguably Boris’ biggest strategic failure has been twofold.
First, by sins of omission and commission, to allow the Labour Party the time and space to regain its credibility and to be taken seriously again, even in transient polls, to the extent that a party with literally no discernible “narrative” or any memorable policy prescriptions is currently around ten percent ahead of the Government in most opinion polls. Tony Benn defined two groups of politicians as either signposts and weathercocks – Keir Starmer is an example of the latter and many voters hoped Johnson was the former.
Second, to be perceived to be wasting the epochal opportunity afforded to no Conservative since Margaret Thatcher in 1979 – that is, to consolidate a unifying narrative (a “sea change”) as a catalyst for a full programme of government: a broadly communitarian, socially conservative, state interventionist, small “n” nationalist consensus.
This would balance support for such institutions as the monarchy, armed forces, National Health Service with a more buccaneering, outward-looking post-EU strategy of British exceptionalism, lower taxes and regulations, soft power and economic, cultural and social renaissance.
Any putative Tory leaders should now be thinking of a Tory legacy. Harold Macmillan had social housing, Edward Heath had entry to the Common Market, Margaret Thatcher the fall of communism, Right to Buy and popular capitalism. John Major had the Cones Hotline and May, well, Christian charity doesn’t permit me to be too unkind.
What would reenergise and revivify Conservative activists and Conservative voters?
This Government now needs to cut taxes for the middle classes, as much as anything because the way back to redemption lies via self-belief and revisiting things you were always seen to be good at: low taxes, for business and entrepreneurialism (but not sweeteners and help for special interests), deregulation and fiscal responsibility.
It’s fair to say that reputation has been shredded in the last five years. At the last general election, the biggest Tory tax commitment was actually not cutting corporation tax from 19 per cent to 17 per cent. That was it! The other was not increasing NICS but let’s draw a veil over that….
Next, the Prime Minister has to face down the small number of NIMBY critics on the backbenches. He must reinstate the commitment to build more homes not just on brownfield sites and in city centres but via new towns, garden villages and urban extensions. He should recruit Liam Halligan – whose superb book Home Truths outlined a simple manifesto for change by tackling such difficult issues as land value capture, public sector land banking, market distortions such as Help to Buy and poor planning policies – to head up a new Housing Unit.
Why is the UK so far behind compared to other advanced nations on tax breaks and planning reform for building extra care facilities for older people, a policy which would free up billions in acute hospital care and social care?
Penultimately, Conservatives are angry and impatient about illegal immigration across the Channel, and gimmicks won’t cut the mustard. Verbiage about the Brexit bonus with the ending of free movement rings hollow in the face of thousands of illegal landings in Kent facilitated by people traffickers.
British people are welcoming and generous (pace Hong Kong), but intolerant when their hospitality is abused at their expense.It’s time to take tough decisions on the Human Rights Act: after all, those well known right-wing headbangers David Cameron and Theresa May stood on a manifesto commitment in 2015, to enact a British Bill of Rights instead and in December 2019 page 48 of the Conservative manifesto pledged an update of the HRA.
Finally, any Conservative Government which shies away from reform of the NHS will have failed. By the time of the next general election, we will be spending 44 per cent of all our day to day public expenditure on the health service. and rapid demographic change and an unreformed NHS will mean extra funds allocated for social care will be crowded out by a lack of innovation, waste and inefficiency.
The 2012 Heath and Social Care Act demonstrates how difficult it is to muster the political will to deliver radical change and fundamental reform as, ten years on, we languish mid or bottom table amongst advanced economies in key areas like after hours care and post surgical health outcomes. Such a commitment needs courage and intellectual self confidence and remains UK politics’ hardest challenge.
The 2019 election result was a Conservative triumph, but perhaps gave rise to hubris and institutional stasis. The party’s historic reputation for flexibility and ideological pragmatism should not obscure the fact that without new and radical ideas to inspire and motivate even its own supporters, the trappings of power will be ephemeral and the voters’ retribution brutal and unforgiving.