‘Tories should take a tip from Macbeth and be bold. But the party itself is infirm of purpose’, Observer, 5 June 2022.

“If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly,” argues one of literature’s most famous regicides, Macbeth. Conservative MPs wanting rid of Boris Johnson, however, don’t seem so sure.

Some Westminster watchers, having convinced themselves that a vote of no confidence would be triggered as early as this week, are now picking up signs that even some of the prime minister’s most determined detractors would prefer to delay things, believing that byelection defeats in Wakefield and in Tiverton and Honiton will convince more MPs to vote to oust him.

Their hesitation is understandable but mistaken, based as it is on the assumption that, should Johnson survive such a vote, he is safe for another year. Yet, thanks to those who sought to defenestrate his predecessor, we know that this is not in fact the case. Should the 1922 Committee’s executive decide that another vote should be held, no matter how soon after the first one, then, if its chairman receives enough letters demanding one, it can go ahead.

The would-be assassins on the Tory backbenches, then, should be (to borrow from Macbeth again) “bloody, bold, and resolute”, “screw [their] courage to the sticking place” and just get on with it.

Yes, they’re right to worry that the PM might see off an attempt to unseat him this week, although the idea that every single one of the 160 or so Conservative MPs who form part of the government’s “payroll vote” would vote to hang on to him is for the birds. But were the number of MPs voting against Johnson to run into three figures, he would be badly wounded – so badly wounded that he might find it very hard to survive a byelection double whammy on 23 June.

At that point, some of the more realistic members of the cabinet might eventually summon up the courage to tell Johnson the game’s up. And, if they prove too cowardly to do so, there’s nothing to stop all those who voted no confidence in him first time round immediately writing to 1922 Committee chair, Graham Brady, to demand another vote, something he and his colleagues would find it tough to deny on a technicality, especially when that technicality (as we’ve already noted) doesn’t really exist.

None of this is to say, of course, that replacing Johnson will solve the Conservative party’s problems at a stroke, thus guaranteeing it a win at the next general election. True, it is unlikely to do it any harm: all in all, the historical precedents are pretty encouraging – think Macmillan replacing Eden, Major replacing Thatcher, and Johnson replacing May. But even if we accept, as students of politics are now routinely taught, that British politics has become ever more “presidentialised”, the salesman isn’t yet the be-all and end-all. The product – what a party thinks and says it’s for, as well as what it actually does when in government – still counts for something.

Unfortunately for the Tories, as others have pointed out, they are struggling to define their purpose and to point to much by way of concrete achievements.

In some ways, this is an inevitable consequence of being in office for over a decade: nearly all governing parties begin to run out of steam and ideas after a while. But it’s also the result of a glaring mismatch. On the one hand, there’s what the zeitgeist seems to demand, namely a more engaged and enabling state willing to accept both that the present needs to be paid for and the future needs to be planned. On the other is a party obsessed with restoring what many of its parliamentary and grassroots members regard as the eternal verities of its glorious Thatcherite past: low tax, low spend, deregulation and as little welfare state as the electorate will let the government get away with.

Since this is a dilemma that cannot easily be solved, the Conservatives (unless, of course, you’re naive enough to take their talk of “levelling up” half way seriously) have effectively condemned themselves to a pathetic politics of distraction, boasting about almost singlehandedly helping Ukraine to win its war against Russia, binning off desperate migrants to Rwanda, returning to imperial weights and measures and that hardy perennial, creating new grammar schools.

The delicious irony is that, while this risible rubbish is the stuff of a thousand wet dreams for the party in the media – the proprietors, editors and columnists of rightwing newspapers who are every bit as important a component of the Conservative party as its MPs and its rank and file – it has rendered voters so cynical that they appear to have dismissed the government’s recent, relatively generous cost of living package as just another gimmick designed to save Johnson’s skin.

It may, just about, come as some comfort to those Tories who still take an interest in the domestic politics of other European countries that they aren’t the only ones struggling. Looking across the continent, there are few countries where the Christian democratic, market liberal and conservative parties that make up the European mainstream right seem to be doing particularly well.

In part, that’s because, as many social democratic parties found a decade or so ago, it’s simply bad luck if you happen to find yourself in government when an economic (or some other) crisis hits. Moreover, as German Christian democrats can testify, even when you’re lucky enough to avoid that fate, governing parties in other countries are just as prone to exhaustion and the swing of the political pendulum as in the UK. Yet the difficulties faced by mainstream right parties in Europe are also a reflection of a more profound socio-cultural, as well as political, predicament.

Partly as a result of expanded higher education, the middle-class voters who were traditionally the mainstream right’s most loyal voters grew culturally more liberal from the 1970s onwards. Meanwhile, partly as a result of a backlash against mass migration in the 1990s, a fair few working-class voters who might have been expected to vote for the left were now up for grabs.

Attempting to ensure that they didn’t gravitate to the populist-radical right involved mainstream-right politicians feeling they had to talk tougher (particularly on immigration and in more nationalistic terms) than their more liberal, cosmopolitan voters felt comfortable with. That has led some of those voters to desert, leaving those politicians relying on often less well-heeled voters who tend to expect more from the state than mainstream right parties are inclined to provide.

For a while, the Conservative party, not least because it has always been happier than its continental counterparts to indulge in a spot of nationalism, to flirt with populism and to play the immigration card, managed this predicament better than some of its supposed sister parties. But, in going ahead with an in-out referendum and then backing a “hard” withdrawal from the EU, it badly overshot.

Ending free movement in order to “take back control of our borders”, for instance, appears to have contributed to a significant decline in the salience of immigration. That may, for the moment anyway, have helped see off Nigel Farage, but it may also have robbed the Tories of a stick with which they’ve traditionally been able to beat Labour. It also robs them of an excuse should the public come to worry excessively about numbers in the future, let alone about small boats crossing the Channel in the here and now.

Even more seriously, the UK’s withdrawal from the single market (without which a definitive end to free movement could probably not have been achieved) and the customs union is, most experts agree, bound to lead to slower economic growth for years to come.

For a party whose main appeal to the electorate has been its claim to deliver a higher standard of living and a reasonable level of public services, this is hugely self-defeating. Sadly, however, as Tobias Ellwood proved last week, for a Tory MP even to discuss the matter openly is to invite ridicule, most obviously from Johnson’s supporters keen to characterise those hoping to force the PM out as embittered Remoaners.

Their reaction points to a final paradox at the heart of their party’s current troubles: it is led by a politician renowned for his lack of principles but whose continued presence obliges so many of his colleagues not just to humiliate themselves but to close their minds as well.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jun/05/tories-take-tip-from-macbeth-be-bold-party-itself-infirm-in-purpose


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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