Yesterday evening, Charlotte Gill wrote on this site about Boris Johnson’s first year: Covid-19, Brexit, the economy, culture – and mentioned a dog about which few have barked: his liberal approach in government to immigration.
This morning, it’s time to turn to a question which arises from that whole – namely, whether this Conservative Parliamentary Party has the stomach to back unpopular decisions, even with a Tory majority of 80 in the Commons.
Here are a few straws in the wind. Had the vaccines not ridden to the rescue, the Government’s Coronavirus policy, based on a test-and-trace approach which is right in principle but ropey in practice, might well have endured even bigger backbench revolts.
Even as it is, enough Conservative MPs rebelled on the recent Coronavirus tiers vote to nullify that majority, were they to persist in future, and were the Opposition parties all to join them.
Then there is housing. Neil O’Brien has shredded the algorithm used as a basis for the Government’s housing proposals, and it isn’t clear whether the present policy, with its targets drawn up at the centre, can survive.
Then there are policies that don’t require legislation at all – like the Government’s original response to Marcus Rashford’s campaign for free school meals during the Christmas holiday.
Then there are those that do, such as tax rises proposed in future budgets, which would then be presented as part of a Finance Bill. It isn’t at all clear that Tory MPs are up for voting for many of these, if they came.
Our point is not that all these measures necessarily have merit – some don’t: though on housing, we admire Boris Johnson for thinking big, understanding that the status quo is socially unjust, and exploring solutions that might meet the scale of the challenge.
Rather, we wonder if a generation of Conservative MPs elected on a platform of getting Brexit done and spending more on nurses, police, hospitals, schools, doctors and science are ready for the unexpected consequences of the first major pandemic in a century.
First, we give you the case for optimism if you occupy the Prime Minister’s bully pulpit.
The virus will dwindle in potency, the economy will rebound – minimising the consequences of No Deal if it happens – MPs will return to Parliament en masse, collective discipline will reassert itself, a shuffle causes more gain than pain…
…Brexit Britain will make a success of chairing the G7, the local elections will be better for the Conservatives and the Scottish Parliamentary ones worse for the SNP than one would have thought, Johnson and Joe Biden will be best buddies at Cop26.
Next, the case for pessimism.
It is founded on the contention that a fundamental change is taking place in the make-up of Tory MPs, mirroring the broad upward trend in backbench rebellions since the Blair era.
In short, they are gradually becoming constituency champions rather than party animals, prioritising the immediate demands of their constituents above the blandishments of the whips.
Brexit, a decline in the power of patronage, the rise of WhatsApp groups to which the whips have no access, the developing phenomena of the new “research groups”: all these, capped by the end of the old military-style culture, pose new challenges to the executive.
Rolled up at one end by a more politicised judiciary and at the other by more assertive legislators, the Executive’s room for manoeuvre is being whittled away.
So even if not at all next year’s economic and electoral news is bad for the Prime Minister, he will find it difficult to impose authority on a Parliamentary Party whose latest intake has had, due to Covid, no opportunity to find its feet in the Commons.
Political parties find it hard to renew themselves in Government – and Tory MPs seem to be best prepared to take tough decisions coming into government from Opposition, as in 1979 and 2010, rather than mid-term.
Doing so would be a challenge even to the best-organised of teams in Number Ten. As we write, it isn’t clear how the political direction of the Government will be set, given first the marginalisation and then the departure of Dominic Cummings.
Nor is it evident how Conservative MPs would react were the Government’s ratings to slide in the polls. They have been strikingly buoyant over the year as a whole: the 40 per cent or so coalition of voters that Johnson assembled has not lost faith in him.
In the event of No Deal, they will cheer the Prime Minister and blame Emmanuel Macron. Or at least, that’s where they’d be in week one. Whether they’d still be there in week eleven, say, is an unknown.