‘Tories have been lurching further right for years. Boris Johnson was just the latest’, Observer, 10 July 2022.

Especially after the chaos of the last few days – and even, some would argue, the chaos of the last few years – it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that Boris Johnson is somehow sui generis among Conservative leaders. That might be true with respect to his character – his flamboyance, his willingness to flout convention and break the rules, his narcissism. But it’s far from being the case when it comes to his policy emphases and his electoral strategy.

Johnson, in fact, is as much a culmination as he is an aberration. Ever since Margaret Thatcher took over as its leader in 1975, the Conservative party has been transforming itself – albeit not necessarily in linear fashion – from a conventional centre-right outfit into one that, in some crucial respects anyway, resembles the populist radical right. Johnson may have accelerated that transformation but he certainly didn’t kickstart it.

William Hague is now a venerable (and very perceptive) newspaper columnist. But between 1997 and 2001, when he was leading the Tories in opposition, he found himself caricatured as a skinheaded cabby – and not, his opponents argued, without reason.

Hague’s almost archetypally populist approach – one that counterposes “the people” against a metropolitan elite that doesn’t understand them, doesn’t cater to them and secretly looks down on them – was typified by his famous “foreign land” speech. Speaking at the Tories’ spring conference in Harrogate in 2001, he sought to identify the party, in tones that could easily be confused for Boris Johnson’s (or, for that matter, Nigel Farage’s), with “the decent, plain-speaking common sense of its people”, those who “believe in their country”, “take pride in what our country has achieved”, and who were fed up with their values being derided by Labour and those Johnson and his minions nowadays like to label “woke”.

“Talk about Europe,” Hague claimed, “and they call you extreme. Talk about tax and they call you greedy. Talk about crime and they call you reactionary. Talk about asylum and they call you racist. Talk about your nation and they call you Little Englanders.”

Then came the policy promises, not least: “We will welcome genuine refugees but we will be a safe haven not a soft touch. That is not bigotry. It’s plain common sense.” Eat your heart out, Johnson’s pick for home secretary, Priti Patel. The road to Rwanda, it seems, began not on the shingle beaches of Kent but the green hills of North Yorkshire.

Not everyone in the party was happy with Hague. Indeed, the Tories’ progress towards radical rightwing populism might have stalled slightly had Michael Portillo not failed in his bid to lead the party after Hague stepped down. Instead, we got Iain Duncan Smith, and then Michael Howard and his promise to cut taxes and the bureaucrats who had allowed political correctness to go mad, as well as the “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” immigration poster that featured in the 2005 election campaign masterminded by Johnson’s go-to guy, Lynton Crosby.

So when Johnson blew on the dog-whistle during the 2016 referendum with his talk of Turkey joining the EU, it was hardly something no Tory had ever done before. He just blew it harder and longer – and, naturally, lied about it afterwards.

Of course, the Tory leader most affected was David Cameron, for whom Brexit meant an early exit from Downing Street, albeit one made (in marked contrast to Johnson’s) voluntarily and with his dignity still intact. Indeed, if anyone (apart perhaps from John Major) could at least claim to be the aberration among recent Tory leaders, it is probably Cameron rather than Johnson. Cameron, after all, wanted to persuade his party to stop “banging on about Europe” and barely mentioned immigration in his first two years as leader.

To Cameron, the path to power lay not through “white-van man” (the prototypical “Red-Waller”) but through creating a Conservative party that, by selecting a new breed of candidate and softening its strident tones, looked and sounded more like contemporary Britain – and one that recouped the party’s recent losses among the rapidly expanding ranks of the graduate middle class.

But even Cameron soon succumbed to the gravitational pull of populism. Under pressure from his own restless rightwingers, and confident that his hoodie and husky-hugging had done enough to win him “permission to be heard” from more socially liberal voters, he reverted to the “Tebbit trinity” of Europe, tax and immigration, with a big dollop of “law n’ order” on the side, albeit still accompanied by serving after serving of “our NHS”.

As Cameron’s great rival, Boris Johnson may have been safely (or supposedly safely) out of the way in City Hall; but he was nonetheless watching as well as waiting – learning exactly what would go down well in all the small towns, suburbs, and rural communities outside liberal-lefty London.

Sadly for Johnson, having dished Cameron, his best-laid plans went awry when his pet snake, Michael Gove, unexpectedly turned on him, forcing him out of the 2016 contest. But the winner was another supposed moderniser turned martinet, Theresa May, who had set aside her earlier worries about the Tories looking like “the nasty party” as she pursued her mission to create a “hostile environment” for unwanted migrants.

Even more importantly, it was she and Nick Timothy (her Dominic Cummings) who effectively moved the party toward the uber-patriotic, rhetorically more interventionist and anti-austerity Conservatism that, notwithstanding her losing her parliamentary majority in 2017, put the Tories within touching distance of so many of the seats that Johnson – with the same kind of approach, just more effectively and charismatically executed – was able to win two years later.

Nothing comes from nothing – and nor did Boris Johnson. True, he’s shown himself to have less regard than his predecessors for liberal democratic norms, as well as for the feelings of the business community (although even that difference can be overdone). However, he is not a Tory like no other. Johnson is merely the latest representative of a tradition whose worrying trend towards radical rightwing populism his successor will find hard to reverse – always assuming, of course, that he or she even wants to.

Originally published at https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2022/jul/10/tories-have-been-lurching-further-right-for-years-boris-johnson-was-just-the-latest

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