Boris Johnson was sooner or later bound to crash and burn.
He was the salesman suddenly promoted to CEO by a firm desperate to avoid loss of market share to a disruptive rival – in the Conservatives’ case Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, which finished so far ahead of them in the 2019 European elections that they literally feared for their survival.
In the short term, it seemed like a smart move.
Johnson won the ensuing general election on the promise (false, it turned out) that he had cooked up an “oven-ready” deal that would “get Brexit done” so that he could “level up” the country and repair the damage done to our public services by a decade of Tory austerity.
But it very soon became obvious that he had no talent for (nor, if truth be told, very much interest in) governing as opposed to campaigning.
As a result, Covid hit the country far, far harder than it needed to.
Indeed, no amount of Johnsonian boasting about Britain’s successful vaccine programme should be allowed to disguise his manifest failure to prevent so many people losing either their lives or their long-term wellbeing.
Meanwhile, instead of establishing a genuinely cooperative trading relationship with Europe, Johnson simply couldn’t let go of the Brussels-bashing that had become his trademark – with the result that Britain’s economy is growing more slowly than nearly all its major competitors while politics in Northern Ireland remains gridlocked.
The only bright spot has been our support for Ukraine. But does anyone seriously believe that another Prime Minister have behaved differently in that regard? I don’t think so.
So…throw in his lawbreaking, his lies, and his sheer disregard for the norms and conventions underpinning our parliamentary democracy, and you have, in Boris Johnson, one of the least admirable, as well as least successful, premiers this country has ever seen.
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.
No army trying to defend territory wants to fight on two fronts. But the by-elections in Tiverton and Honiton and Wakefield suggest that’s exactly the challenge the Conservatives are facing.
Boris Johnson won in 2019 precisely because, by promising to ‘Get Brexit Done’, invest in public services and ‘level up’ the country, he managed to bring together traditionally Tory voters in the South and former Labour voters in the North and the Midlands.
Keeping both sets of voters onside is now proving very tricky.
It’s not just that, no matter where they live, they’ve realised that many of the PM’s promises meant nothing. It’s also that they want different things.
If the Tories try to win back voters the so-called ‘Blue Wall’ with tax cuts, where will that leave voters in ‘Red Wall’ areas who were promised more government spending?
Turns out Boris can’t have his cake and eat it after all.
Anyone who’s ever encountered a level crossing in France may have seen a sign reading Un train peut en cacher un autre — one train can hide another. That warning also applies to the two by-election defeats for the Conservative party this week. So spectacular was the Liberal Democrats’ win in Tiverton and Honiton that it risks obscuring the significance of Labour’s supposedly so-so win in Wakefield. Yet, inasmuch as by-elections can be harbingers of a general election to come, the latter matters just as much — if not more — than the former.
That’s not, of course, to deny the import of what happened in Devon on Thursday — and not just because it joins the list of iconic victories by Britain’s third party, going all the way back to Orpington in 1962. Following on from Chesham and Amersham and North Shropshire, it completes a hat-trick of huge wins in traditionally true-blue seats for Ed Davey’s party over the past year.
True, if the experience of the 1980s and 1990s is anything to go by, then all three of those seats may well return to the Tories at the next general election — especially if the sheer scale of their defeat in Devon persuades Boris Johnson’s MPs to ditch him. The loss of Eastbourne to the Lib Dems in 1990 persuaded their predecessors to ditch Margaret Thatcher and John Major, her successor, held on in 1992.
But that should come as no comfort at all to the Conservatives. There are somewhere between 20 and 30 seats (recent boundary changes make it difficult to be more precise) that the Lib Dems could take from them on a 10-point swing at a general election. And the swing in Tiverton and Honiton was a truly terrifying 30 points.
Moreover, what was particularly encouraging for the opposition about the result there, and certainly for the Lib Dems, was the seeming willingness of Labour voters to vote tactically, setting aside any lingering resentment at the party going into coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yes, Richard Foord is the constituency’s new MP mainly because the Tory vote fell by 22 points while the Lib Dem vote rose by 38. But the fact that Labour’s vote-share collapsed from 19.5 per cent to just 3.7 per cent came in very handy too.
That collapse matters because there were 17 seats where the Lib Dems came second to the Tories in 2019 and where the number of votes won by Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens put together exceeded not only the Tory majority but the combined total for the Tories and the Brexit party. If, at the next general election, the Lib Dems can squeeze the Labour (and Green) vote in anything like the way that they’ve managed to do in these recent by-elections, those seats are ripe for the taking.
Sadly, for Keir Starmer’s party, there are actually relatively few seats in which they finished a decent second last time round and where Lib Dem voters returning the favour and voting tactically for Labour is likely to make that much of a difference.
Obviously, were Liberal Democrats to win a fair number of Conservative seats at the next general election, it wouldn’t harm Starmer’s chances of becoming prime minister, albeit, perhaps, as the leader of the largest party rather than one with an overall majority. But his main task is persuading people who voted Tory in 2019 to switch directly over (and, in many cases, back) to Labour.
And that’s why we shouldn’t ignore Wakefield.
Admittedly, the result there was hardly a ringing endorsement of Starmer and the Labour party, relying more, perhaps, on the Conservative vote dropping by 17 points than Labour’s rising by 9. Labour might also be a tad concerned that some former Tory voters may have plumped for minor parties rather than coming over to them.
But a 13-point swing in a so-called Red Wall seat still shouldn’t be sniffed at. For Conservatives, the Lib Dems are clearly a worry. But, even after Thursday, they simply aren’t their main competitor. That’s Labour, and a swing on the scale of the one Labour achieved in Wakefield would be more than enough to kick the Tories out of office at the next election.
“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.
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.
It’s not so much that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has run into trouble recently as that he is trouble, and always has been. Anyone who has followed the ups and downs of his roller coaster career can produce a list as long as their arm of the scrapes he’s gotten himself into and, just as importantly, out of — most often as a result of his willingness to say and do whatever it takes to get him what he wants, regardless of the consequences for others, relying heavily on his charm and his chutzpah to see him through.
The fact that, so often, his strategy has paid off has helped foster the impression that the prime minister is somehow superhuman, convincing his supporters that he will always be able to recover from reverses from which no mortal politician could possibly hope to bounce back.
Yet even they could be forgiven for wondering whether “partygate” — the discovery that, at the height of the pandemic in 2020, lawbreaking social gatherings had taken place in his home at No. 10 Downing St. — would finally see his preternatural luck run out.
Johnson the loveable rogue was one thing. But there being one rule for him and his friends and another for everyone else was too much, even for some who had previously given him the benefit of the doubt. The revelations put him in the gravest political jeopardy of his career.
To understand why and how that might be, we need to take a look back at Johnson’s by no means straightforward climb to the top of what one 19th century prime minister purportedly called “the greasy pole.” Nothing illustrates better than his ascent the combination of guile, recklessness and sheer good fortune that continues to cast a spell on enough of his colleagues and countrymen to allow him to hold on to his job.
And then came Covid. Johnson’s instinctive (and, in normal circumstances, not unreasonable) antipathy toward telling the public what to do meant that early on in the pandemic he delayed taking the kind of firm and timely action that may well have prevented tens of thousands of Brits dying unnecessarily. That he then ended up in the hospital himself with the disease may have garnered him some sympathy, but it had little or no effect on how he dealt with the crisis: Desperate to rid the U.K. of restrictions that were costing the Treasury billions in lost revenue, he opened the country up in 2020 just as a second wave of the coronavirus was starting and then refused to lock down again in time to prevent tens of thousands of additional deaths.
That they still don’t seem to be is down to the impossibility of shaming someone whose entire career shows him to be utterly shameless, as well as hesitation on the part of the only people who could force him out before his government’s mandate expires in 2024 — his own Conservative colleagues.
Many of them don’t like him. Even more of them don’t trust him. Yet most of them are still under his spell, believing that he can once again rise from the dead and help them hold together the electoral coalition that saw the Conservatives win big in 2019. And, sadly — at least for anyone who holds that lawmakers shouldn’t be lawbreakers — unless and until he looks certain to cost them rather than win them the next general election, they will remain so.
Boris Johnson seems absolutely determined to resist calls for him to step down. He is in good company. British prime ministers – with the exception of Harold Wilson and David Cameron – don’t tend to “go gentle into that good night”, preferring instead to cling on, limpet-like until their party is removed from office at the ballot box or, like Johnson’s immediate predecessor Theresa May, they are effectively forced out by colleagues hoping (not altogether unreasonably, it turns out) that a change of leader may persuade the public to forget their failings and give them a second chance.
As post-war political history shows us, even serious ill health hasn’t been enough to prevent previous prime ministers trying hard to bag and then hang on to the top job for as long as they can – although it has, for at least a couple of them, eventually furnished a convenient excuse for bowing out earlier than they might have wished.
Winston Churchill , for instance, was already in pretty poor shape by the time he regained the premiership in 1951 at the age of 76, and many of his colleagues – not least his ambitious foreign secretary, Anthony Eden – hoped he would retire after a year or so. But, in spite of an array of medical problems and an increasingly evident decline in his powers, he refused to relinquish the prize. And such was the Conservative Party’s concern not to be seen to be ditching the country’s iconic wartime leader that, even after he suffered a massive stroke in June 1953 that left him incapacitated for months, his colleagues connived in keeping the full story from the public.
Things might have been different for Churchill had Eden, ironically enough, not been ill himself as the result of a botched operation earlier that year. So serious were its consequences, in fact, that by the time Churchill was prevailed upon to reluctantly call it a day in the spring of 1955, Eden, too, was already long past his best. Even though his premiership got off to a superb start – he called an election almost immediately after taking over and increased the Tories’ overall majority from 17 to 60 – he was soon driving his ministers to distraction with what many of them regarded as his unwarranted interference in the running of their departments.
Naturally, their irritation pales into insignificance with the cause of Eden’s eventual departure in early 1957 – his responsibility for the doomed attempt to snatch back the Suez Canal in the autumn of 1956 and the knowledge among his colleagues that he had misled Parliament in denying any collusion with Israel and France in the build-up to the operation.
The episode emphasises the role (one reprised half a century later under Tony Blair) that a major miscalculation in foreign and military affairs can play in bringing down a premiership, especially when combined with a prime minister being seen to have been less than honest with the public on the issue. But it also risks blinding us to the equally important role played by far more mundane domestic considerations.
Because Suez looms so large in the story of Eden’s undoing, we forget that soon after the election, his chancellor, Rab Butler was forced to introduce a humiliating emergency budget just months after he had helped win the 1955 election with something of a giveaway before it. We forget, too, that – partly as a result – less than a year into his premiership Eden was being called on (by a disappointed Daily Telegraph, no less) to demonstrate “the smack of firm government”.
Indeed, it was those domestic difficulties, even though they weren’t reflected in a particularly significant loss of support in the polls (which came out far less frequently in those days anyway), that led Eden to reshuffle both Butler and Macmillan, much to the chagrin of both – one reason, along with their transparent desire to succeed him, why they did little or nothing to help their boss out over Suez and its aftermath.
In the event, it was the 62-year-old Macmillan who, after Eden resigned (not altogether unreasonably) pleading ill health, “emerged” as his replacement following “soundings” of the parliamentary party taken by senior Conservatives. And like Eden, he began well, turning things around after Suez and aligning the political and economic cycle to ensure that voters had “never had it so good”, resulting not only in a third consecutive election victory for the Tories at the general election of 1959 but yet another substantial increase in their Commons majority.
Again, however, a combination of economic difficulties at home and policy controversy abroad (not least his embrace of the end of empire and his failed attempt to join the EEC), soon saw his government run into trouble. Moreover, the sharp increase in the commissioning of opinion polls made its unpopularity even more glaringly obvious for all to see, as did a series of stunning by-election reverses – probably the first time, but by no means the last time, that such defeats would play a role in putting a premature end to a premiership.
The same can be said for another key factor in Macmillan’s early departure (which, like Eden’s, was officially put down to ill health) – namely the appearance of an opposition leader who appears more in touch with the public’s mood and priorities and who they can imagine standing on the steps of No 10. The Profumo affair in 1963, along with 1962’s infamous Night of the Long Knives, during which a panicky Macmillan sacked half his Cabinet, may have confirmed voters’ suspicions that he was past it. But Wilson did a fair bit to help them toward that conclusion.
Whether Labour’s Neil Kinnock played as big a role in Margaret Thatcher’s departure in November 1990 is rather more doubtful. But, in truth, he didn’t really need to. All the other elements were there: major policy failures and controversies (the Poll Tax and Europe); economic difficulties (the return of inflation worries); alienated, ambitious and seriously worried colleagues (Howe, Heseltine and Major); the party’s declining support revealed in poll after poll and dramatised by one or two spectacular by-election defeats (most obviously Eastbourne); an obvious waning (possibly due to incipient illness) of the premier’s powers; and a sense, overall, that they had done the job the party had needed them to do and that, since they were no longer trusted by voters and had gone from being an electoral asset to an electoral liability, it was time to spin the wheel and move on.
A look at that list – and at the history books more generally – should surely worry Johnson, especially now that Labour (probably for the first time since Blair) can boast a leader of the opposition who, for all his lack of charisma, probably passes the proverbial ‘blink test’ as a potential prime minister. Just as they were under Theresa May, most, if not all, of the criteria for an early exit would appear to be met. And if Johnson does eventually go, then, unlike some of his predecessors, the current occupant of No 10 won’t be able to plead infirmity – except, his critics would say, moral infirmity – as even the flimsiest of excuses.
oris Johnson beware. Ever since Britain first became a democracy in 1928, its prime ministers have been booted, or winkled, out of Downing Street rather than departing purely of their own free will. The only clear exception to the rule is Stanley Baldwin, who in 1937 announced his retirement, having won a massive majority two years earlier and then ridding the country of its scandal-ridden, pro-German monarch.
Every one of Baldwin’s successors, apart from Macmillan (who quit owing to ill-health) and Wilson, who might have been able to hang on longer had he not quit before illness and exhaustion overwhelmed him, has resigned after losing a general election (Churchill, Attlee, Home, Wilson, Heath, Callaghan, Major and Brown) or losing the confidence, or at least testing the patience, of their parliamentary colleagues (Chamberlain, Churchill, Eden, Thatcher, Blair, Cameron and May).
Given, then, that ejection from within rather than from without is by no means uncommon, Johnson surely has cause for concern. Never as stunning as many imagine, his standing with the public is not only lower than it has ever been, it is lower than that enjoyed by many – indeed, quite possibly all – of his predecessors.
The PM is not widely trusted. He’s not considered competent. He’s not even that well-liked anymore. And we would find pretty much the same were we to scientifically survey Tory MPs at Westminster. They will be compulsively reading polls that, as the cost of living crisis really begins to bite, show Labour moving into a sustained lead not just on voting intention but on some of the key issues that help decide elections. Website ConservativeHome’s invaluable temperature-taking of the party’s grassroots suggests they are considerably less impressed with Johnson than they used to be and considerably more impressed with many of his colleagues.
Since so many of the underlying factors associated with a party getting shot of a prime minister would seem to be in play, one might have been forgiven for assuming that Johnson being issued with a fixed-penalty notice over partygate would have lit the blue touch paper.
And yet. And yet. Nothing to see here. At the last count, around 80 Tory MPs had voiced their support for the PM, apparently seeing nothing wrong with him breaking the laws he himself had made and misleading parliament about doing so. So far, only three MPs have called on him, in terms, to go since news of him and his chancellor being fined broke last Tuesday, while the only member of the government to quit in protest sits in the Lords not the Commons.
True, all that leaves well over 250 Tory MPs who have chosen to keep schtum, including many who, whether as junior ministers or lower-level bag-carriers, make up the “payroll vote” whose members are obliged to toe the party line. But anyone hoping that their silence is ominous, as opposed to simply spineless, is likely to be disappointed.
The reasons for this, according to the majority of Westminster-watchers, are mainly circumstantial. But is that the whole story? We’re informed, for instance, that even the most jaded of Johnson’s colleagues are having second thoughts after seeing him strutting the world stage once more, with Ukraine providing the party in the media (the columnists and the editors of the Tory-supporting press) with the “Don’t they know there’s a war on?” logic for keeping him in place. Yet, as others have pointed out with reference to two world wars and one Gulf war, that spurious logic hasn’t stayed MPs’ hands before now.
We’re also told that Rishi Sunak’s recent fall from grace, combined with lingering doubts about his keenest rival, Liz Truss, makes a leadership contest less likely since, the argument runs, there is no consensus as to who would take over. To which the obvious rejoinder is: when has such a consensus ever been required previously? If you’re stuck in a burning building with only one fire exit, you don’t wait to find out what’s on the other side before pushing open the door.
Then there’s the argument that, especially now that we’re fretting about our household finances, partygate is old news. It’s even suggested that we’ve all spent so long discussing whether or not the police would eventually fine Johnson, his breaking the law is effectively “priced in”, just as so many of his other fibs, flaws and foibles have been over the years. The problem with this argument is that for every survey cited to claim that the public wants to “move on”, one can find another that shows they’re still very angry about the whole thing and, by a substantial majority, want the PM gone.
And now there’s Rwanda. Apparently, only an out-and-out radical rightwing populist like Johnson could contemplate something so bold, all the more so if the liberal left falls headlong into such an obvious war-on-woke elephant trap. But is that the case? Take it from someone who’s spent far too long studying the issue: Tory governments have always stooped to conquer on immigration. It’s what they do.
We need, then, to look beyond pure contingency at the deeper reasons – some rational, others less so – behind Conservative MPs hanging on to Johnson in spite of what polling, their consciences, and some of the braver souls on their own side, might be telling them otherwise.
We could, for starters, look to “rational choice” approaches to politics. For example, one of those braver souls, the Tory peer Daniel Finkelstein, thinks Johnson should go but doubts he will, citing what he calls “a market failure in political coups” due to the fact that, although the majority of a party’s MPs might benefit from such a move, the costs, should it fail, are concentrated on the minority courageous enough to mount it.
Another explanation rooted in rational choice would focus on the fact that Johnson, since he has few, if any, fixed opinions and is now severely weakened, is relatively easy to push and pull in whatever direction most suits his colleagues and the media. Planning reform that might actually see enough houses built where they’re most needed? No thanks. Additional measures to combat Covid? I don’t think so. Net zero? Not so fast. Spending enough to really sort out social care or the NHS backlog or the chronic shortfall in local authority finances or the grave blow dealt by the pandemic to children’s education? Forget about it. Any new leader, by contrast, would, by dint of being given a fresh mandate, be far less easy to manipulate.
Then there’s the cognitive biases beloved of behavioural economists, in particular the sunk cost fallacy, which sees us carry on investing in projects (and people) into which we have already poured resources even when the possibility of a payback grows increasingly remote, a tendency exacerbated by the worry that giving the whole thing up as a bad job, especially if we’ve previously publicly defended our initial choice, would be tantamount to admitting we’ve been a bit of an idiot.
Perhaps, though, the explanation is even more psychological? Gratitude to Johnson for helping the Tories win a big majority back in 2019 is one thing, but gratitude is normally one of the most perishable quantities in party politics. “What have you done for me lately?” is normally the question to which leaders need to provide a persuasive answer. And in any case, does that gratitude really entitle the PM to exploit and abuse his supporters’ trust time and time again?
There is arguably, then, more than a whiff of co-dependency in the way that Johnson’s ministerial colleagues, by publicly defending him and prioritising his interests over their own dignity and conscience, effectively enable him to continue to behave in a manner that, from the outside anyway, would seem to be harmful to them. What’s more, keeping him there, whatever your politics, is surely trashing the idea that accountability needs to exist not only at elections but between them too. Ultimately, however, it seems to me that the ability of an utterly compromised prime minister to retain the confidence of his colleagues, in spite of his losing the support of the public and becoming a deadweight drag on his party’s popularity, must involve a degree of magical thinking.
Indeed, I would argue that like Churchill and Thatcher before him, Johnson has become what we might call a talismanic leader, one who, possessed by powers that sometimes seem superhuman, even supernatural, to his friends and foes alike will, whatever the current evidence to the contrary, supposedly see their party through the very worst of times and into the sunlit uplands.
A word of warning, however. As Churchill and Thatcher themselves learned the hard way, magic wears off. In an allusion that the prime minister himself may appreciate, talismanic amulets worn in Roman times occasionally bore the Latin inscription utere felix – “good luck to the user”. As we move towards local elections and a byelection in Wakefield, both of which could spell serious trouble for the Tories, Johnson and his parliamentary and media fan clubs are probably going to need it.
Europe’s centre-right political parties used to be seen as both dependably dull and dependably stable. Not anymore. The continent’s Christian democratic, conservative and market liberal parties – each of which can be said to belong to three distinct ‘party families’ that together constitute the mainstream right – are undergoing significant and fascinating transformations, not least as they confront an ever more serious challenge from the populist radical right.
Moreover, because they continue to play a part in governing so many countries, their role in preserving the liberal order in a continent struggling with the changes brought about by, for instance, the gradual erosion (and subsequent demand for re-imposition) of national borders is not one that we can afford to ignore.
To see what is at stake, one need only glance across the Atlantic, where Donald Trump’s presidency, and the apparently unquestioning support given to him in Congress by his co-partisans even after the storming of the Capitol, casts doubt on whether the Republican Party can be considered a mainstream right party anymore – something that has consequences for the future of democracy in the United States.
We should note right at the outset that portrayals of the political situation in Western Europe tend to focus more on the travails of the mainstream centre-left rather than the centre-right. This is because social democratic parties are struggling to hold on to their traditional voters and find it hard to attract enough newer, progressive voters to fully compensate, not least because some of the latter prefer to support alternatives belonging to the Green and radical/far left party families (see Figure 1).
Rightly or wrongly, the decline of social democracy is also linked by commentators to the rise of populist radical right parties. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without the media across Europe making at least some mention of the latter, many of which now regularly win between 5% and 15% of the vote.
“Social democratic parties are struggling to hold on to their traditional voters and find it hard to attract enough newer, progressive voters to fully compensate”.
Moreover, these parties are not necessarily treated as pariahs – as unfit for government – by their competitors. In fact, they have been in office in Austria, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, and have provided regular and reliable parliamentary support to minority governments in Denmark – and all this in spite of research showing that they have not, as some naively hoped, become more moderate over time.
Now, one might have assumed that the corollary of the decline of social democracy would be the rise of parties belonging to the mainstream right – in other words, the conservative, Christian democratic and (market) liberal parties that have always sold themselves as strong supporters of capitalist economies and, certainly in the first two cases, of ‘traditional’ values.
Partly because those difficulties have not generally been quite as serious as the ones faced by their centre-left counterparts and partly because they often have more coalition options, these parties seem, for now, to be better able to hang onto office. But that should not blind us to the problems they face – even when it comes to some of the continent’s hitherto strongest performers such as Spain’s conservative Partido Popular and Germany’s Christian democratic CDU/CSU.
“The comparative lack of attention paid by scholars and media commentators to the decline of these centre-right parties across Western Europe is striking”.
As Figure 2 shows, while the populist radical right party family has been able to establish itself and expand its electoral appeal and while the liberals have held relatively steady, both the conservative and Christian democratic party families have experienced declining support.
The comparative lack of attention paid by scholars and media commentators to the decline of these centre-right parties across Western Europe is striking. But it may be explicable: as Figures 1 and 2 show, the decay in support experienced by Christian democrats and conservatives has been much more gradual than that which has afflicted social democrats. And that decay is therefore easier to overlook.
What is the mainstream right?
The mainstream right encompasses a group of three party families – Christian democrats, conservatives, and liberals – with two main attributes. On the one hand, they all believe that inequality is natural and not something which the state should spend too much time worrying about.
On the other hand, they not only adopt fairly moderate policies but also support existing norms and values (including the rule of law, minority rights, media freedoms) that are intrinsic to liberal democracy – support which distinguishes them from the far right, which not only adopts hard-core positions but also rejects some or all of those norms and values, whether explicitly (the extreme right) or more subtly (the populist radical right).
This is not to suggest that the mainstream right constitutes some kind of essentially homogeneous bloc.
For instance, Christian democrats like the CDU/CSU are characterised not only by the promotion of European integration, class compromise, accommodation and pluralism, but also by the development of a fairly comprehensive welfare regime that, amongst other things, privileges families over individuals and is based on the principle of subsidiarity.
Conservatives such as the British Tory Party, on the other hand, generally promote a rather more residual welfare state, and take a more nationalistic line, being noticeably less enthusiastic, for instance, about European integration.
By contrast, liberals, such as Venstre in Denmark or the Dutch VVD, are generally more internationalist as well as more concerned with the promotion and protection of pluralism and individual rights (and not just property rights) rather than the preservation of traditional values.
These differences help determine the scope and scale of their responses to the challenges they face and, indeed, the extent of the electoral trouble in which they find themselves.
The double whammy – the silent revolution and the silent counter-revolution
To better understand the current political situation and fate of the mainstream right in Western Europe, and to appreciate quite how daunting a challenge it faces, one has to acknowledge an important transformation that has shaken up West European politics.
Effectively, two revolutions have shaken the continent, which have made possible the emergence of two new party families – a ‘silent revolution’ which, among other things, fostered the appearance of the Greens and a ‘silent counter-revolution’ which helped give rise to the populist radical right.
“Effectively, two revolutions have shaken the continent, which have made possible the emergence of two new party families”.
The sustained economic growth that characterised the three decades after the Second World War permitted the emergence of a robust middle class that began to worry less about material needs and started to place more emphasis on post-material concerns.
This was not an abrupt transformation, but rather a slow-motion development that was championed first by younger generations who cared about issues such as fair trade, international peace, respect for the environment and women’s rights.
By the 1980s, this generation was able to trigger a shift in the political agenda of most Western European societies, putting pressure on the existing political parties to adapt to this new scenario – one marked by the growing relevance of post-material values and thus the declining strength of traditional class voting.
Increasing support for progressive values by the middle-class implied a major challenge to the mainstream right, because the left looked set to expand its base of support beyond the traditional working class.
This was hard enough by itself but, from the 1980s and 1990s onward, the mainstream right also faced a challenge from new parties on its right flank which were in part a product of a similar socio-cultural backlash against progressive values, particularly against multiculturalism and immigration – a backlash labelled the silent counter-revolution by Italian political scientist Piero Ignazi.
As a result, mainstream right parties have found themselves experiencing a tension between, on the one hand, the need to continue to appeal to well-heeled (and often well-educated) voters, many of whom express the liberal and progressive values associated with the silent revolution; and, on the other hand, the need to appeal to often less-educated and less affluent (male) voters who sympathise with the authoritarian and nativist ideas associated with the silent counter-revolution pursued by the populist radical right.
Immigration – responding to the silent counter-revolution
The shoe pinches most, perhaps, when it comes to migration and multiculturalism. Widespread anti-immigrant and ethnocentric sentiment is particularly problematic for the mainstream right – not just because, generally speaking, it approves of business-friendly labour market flexibility but because, ideologically, it is all about defending right-wing ideas yet adopting moderate policy positions and adhering to liberal democratic values. So while it can to some extent ape and work with the far right, there are limits to this approach.
As well as posing a threat to the immediate economic interests of some businesses, the adoption of overly harsh positions on immigration can hurt the image and reputation of mainstream right parties among voters who, generally speaking, approve of markets but not authoritarianism, and might therefore withdraw their support.
Moreover, since the populist radical right has in many countries effectively seized ‘issue ownership’ of migration and multiculturalism, trying to match them policy for policy risks driving up their electoral salience, thereby doing those radical right parties a huge favour.
If immigration represents a challenge to the mainstream right, we might expect it to affect its three party families in dissimilar ways. In the case of the Christian democrats, for instance, the adoption of harsh anti-immigrant positions is clearly at odds with core Christian values.
For Conservatives, opening the economy to immigrants can be seen as something positive for the free market but equally something that potentially conflicts with their belief in national sovereignty.
“For Conservatives, opening the economy to immigrants can be seen as something positive for the free market but equally something that potentially conflicts with their belief in national sovereignty”.
Liberal parties, however, should face no such philosophical difficulties since they are in favour of both the free market and tolerating different cultures, although, by presenting Islam as a religion at odds with pluralistic values, radical right parties may disrupt that logic.
And yet, and yet: as Figure 3 shows, parties from all three families have actually moved in pretty much the same restrictive direction on the issue, albeit, as one would expect given the above, with different start- and end-points.
Moral issues – responding to the silent revolution
Of course, immigration is only one area where mainstream right parties have felt obliged to alter their stances – on that issue in response to the pressure created by the silent-counter revolution. They have also had to respond to the silent revolution.
Western European societies have become more liberal on issues such as abortion, divorce, gay rights and gender equality. This has forced mainstream right parties to rethink their programmatic positions and the policies they pursue in government – not always an easy task, particularly for conservative and, even more so, Christian democratic parties, as both David Cameron and Angela Merkel found when it came to gay marriage.
Nevertheless, as Figure 4 shows, although liberal parties have become even more liberal, conservatives and Christian democrats have done so too, albeit without ever quite catching them up.
However, the critical point is that none of these shifts in position – whether they be in response to the silent revolution or the silent counter-revolution – are risk free. By adopting harsher positions on immigration, for instance, mainstream right parties risk alienating their core constituency, which is traditionally and strongly pro-business.
On the other hand, surveys which measure ‘propensity to vote’ for other parties reveal that many current and former mainstream right voters will be tempted to defect to the far right if they don’t see its mainstream counterparts offering at least some token resistance to the social and cultural changes migration brings.
They are similarly uncomfortable – even if they are far from being ‘culture warriors’ advocating some kind of ‘war on woke’ – with the dilution of what they see as common-sense, traditional morality.
Which mainstream right parties are faring better or worse?
Clearly, as their electoral decline since the 1980s suggests, things have been hardest for Christian democratic parties – at least across Western Europe as a whole.
The silent revolution brought with it a decline not just in religiosity but in adherence to the traditional values associated with it, both of which are associated with support for the Christian democrats.
Meanwhile, the silent counter-revolution – and in particular the nationalism, xenophobia, and antipathy to immigration associated with it – represents a direct challenge to Christian democracy’s support for internationalism (typified by its role in encouraging European integration) and its traditional commitment to charity and ‘turning strangers into friends’.
Certainly, it would appear that the Austrian, Dutch and German Christian democrats have suffered as expected. They have lost support over decades and have found it increasingly difficult to appeal to a broad range of voters.
In spite of this, however, their desire to hold on to office – even if that involves sacrifices on policy – means they have been able to form governments on several occasions, either as junior partners (the Netherlands) or the main partner providing the premier (Austria and Germany).
Of course, whether this has been a sensible strategy for these Christian democratic movements in the long-run is debatable. The difficulties of Germany’s CDU/CSU were for a long time somewhat disguised by the personal popularity of former Chancellor Angela Merkel and the weakness of its traditional centre-left opponent.
Now that she has departed and the SPD is the largest force in the new ruling coalition, what is to stop the Christian Democrats going the way of their much diminished counterparts in other countries across the continent?
One response, of course, is to follow their Austrian sister-party in its willingness to partner up in government with the far right. True, the AfD is, for now, regarded by the CDU/CSU as beyond the pale – at least at the federal level.
But how long will that attitude last, notwithstanding the understandable reluctance of many in the Union to do a deal with a party that for some voters conjures up memories of a dark and deeply disturbing past?
“As the Austrian example shows, the idea that, by inviting the far right into coalition, the mainstream right can somehow shame or tame its partner is a convenient, comforting fiction”.
As the Austrian example shows, the idea that, by inviting the far right into coalition, the mainstream right can somehow shame or tame its partner is a convenient, comforting fiction. Any electoral and reputational damage done by the frequent failure of populist radical right parties to convert simplistic promises into workable policies soon seems to heal.
That said, the alternatives – maintaining some kind of cordon sanitaire against the far right or else adopting some of its rhetoric and priorities (particularly on immigration) – show little sign of working either. The former approach rarely lasts and anyway only serves to prove the pariah party’s accusations that ‘the elite’ or ‘the political class’ is conspiring to shut out the true tribunes of ‘the people.’
Meanwhile, as we have already observed, ‘closing down the issue space’ by, for example, cracking down on immigration, asylum and crime often increases the salience of the issues and thereby boosts support for the insurgents.
Let us turn to the conservative parties. Even if campaigning against immigration risks rubbing up against their commitment to business- and market-friendly economic policies, Western Europe’s conservatives should have been better able to cope with the silent counter-revolution: after all, nationalism, as well as, for instance, a penchant for ‘law and order’, is already very much part of who they are.
On the other hand, their respect for traditional hierarchies and so-called ‘family values’, has made the silent revolution a slightly trickier prospect, even if looser links with the church have offered them a little more flexibility in that respect than is allowed to their Christian democrat counterparts.
The UK is a good example. Save for a brief (albeit electorally costly) hiatus during the early years of David Cameron’s leadership between 2005 and 2016, the British Conservative Party has found little difficulty in moving to the right on the cultural dimension, in particular by tapping into ‘welfare chauvinism’ and politicising immigration and the issue of national sovereignty.
“Western Europe’s conservatives should have been better able to cope with the silent counter-revolution: after all, nationalism, as well as, for instance, a penchant for ‘law and order’, is already very much part of who they are”.
Some, however, would argue that the strategy was taken too far in response to the rise of the populist radical right party, UKIP, and its successor, the Brexit Party, resulting in the UK leaving the EU – not something that the majority of employers (or indeed employees) wanted.
When it came to the gradual but seemingly unstoppable growth of social liberalism, however, the Conservative Party initially found things trickier: what was acceptable up until the early 1990s (such as its lack of support for equalities legislation covering race, gender and sexuality) became far less so as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first.
What Cameron billed ‘liberal Conservatism’ enjoyed relatively narrow support among the party’s grassroots. Still, there seems little chance that its headline policy consequences will be reversed: after all, both equal marriage and at least a superficial commitment to environmental targets enjoy widespread support among voters – to the evident consternation of right-wing Tory MPs who have established parliamentary groups in order to stem the tide of ‘wokery’ and ‘greenery’.
But by no means every West European conservative party has coped as well as the UK Tories with the challenges posed by the two revolutions. Perhaps predictably for a Nordic outfit, Sweden’s Moderates, have proved – more than most conservative parties – relatively comfortable with the silent revolution.
But, as anxiety about immigration has mounted, the Moderates have suffered losses to the far right Sweden Democrats, prompting a move on the party’s part to the authoritarian right in order to stop these defeats.
This rightward shift by the Moderates has been largely ineffectual, so far anyway, and may have ceded ground to liberal parties on the other flank, reminding us once again that, for Europe’s mainstream right parties, there are no easy solutions, only trade-offs.
A similar but probably more dramatic tale is unfolding in France. For a long time, the Gaullist right, in its various formations, did little to adapt to the silent revolution but proved more alive to the concerns of the silent counter-revolution, especially when these concerns led voters to switch to the Front National (FN).
As a result, Jacques Chirac and especially Nicolas Sarkozy talked (and sometimes acted) tough on immigration and integration as a vote-seeking strategy.
Arguably, however, their successors overshot, doubling down on a conservative cultural agenda that extended beyond migration and multiculturalism to issues like equal marriage – a move that caused liberal voters (and politicians) to become alienated from the party. Nor, in any case, did it do the Gaullists much good: working class, authoritarian voters to whom that cultural agenda may have appealed were put off by the so-called neoliberal, austerity policies advocated by them in response to the global financial crisis and were instead attracted by the anti-globalist, welfare chauvinist appeal of the FN.
On the other flank, and as a consequence of the increasing adoption of tougher positions on the cultural dimension of competition, many liberal mainstream right voters defected (along with some politicians) to Macron’s En Marche, which (at least initially) took more liberal positions on both sociocultural and socioeconomic issues, effectively stranding the Gaullist Les Républicains between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.
Whether the Republicains’ chosen candidate for this year’s presidential elections, Valérie Pécresse, will be able to escape that fate remains to be seen. True, in the battle to become the party’s presidential candidate, she beat off internal rivals who ran further to the authoritarian right than she did.
But if she is to reach the second round run-off against Macron she will have to outbid two far more strident right candidates without losing Les Republicains’ moderate supporters. It may prove an impossible task.
In most of Western Europe, of course, mainstream right voters have long had an alternative to conservative and Christian democratic parties – namely the liberals. Indeed, should Macron’s experiment endure and entrench itself in the French party system, it may become a success story for the liberal party family and a role model to be imitated by its counterparts across the continent.
The same goes, perhaps, for the German Free Democrats (FDP), often written off but now back in government and aiming, like Macron, to combine (albeit in coalition) the defence of the values of the silent revolution with the endorsement of relatively pro-business positions.
In the Netherlands, however, the liberals have effectively ditched those values – at least as they relate to migration and multiculturalism if not to, say, questions of sexuality – in an attempt to retain sufficient support to stay in government and further stem the flow of Dutch voters to the far right.
In fact, under the leadership of Mark Rutte, the VVD in the Netherlands has, at least for the moment, succeeded in picking up votes and holding on to office, but at the cost of supporting ideas and policies that are at odds with key aspects of the silent revolution and therefore the agenda that, in theory at least, one would expect from a liberal party.
Seen in this light, it could be argued that Rutte is following a similar approach to those adopted by the Austrian Christian democrats under Kurz and the British Conservatives under Boris Johnson – namely to build an ersatz populist radical right party.
“Western Europe’s Conservative, Christian democratic and Liberal parties can be considered mainstream not only because they take relatively moderate positions but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they are committed to respecting liberal democracy”.
This involves the acceptance and even endorsement of some of the values of the silent counter-revolution, to the point that we should seriously question the extent to which, going forward, these parties can safely be categorised as mainstream right – in much the same way as the various parties formed by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy cannot, even if they were never far right outfits in the mould of his coalition partners in Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega, be convincingly or comfortably labelled ‘conservative’.
Will the mainstream finally move to the radical right ?
Western Europe’s Conservative, Christian democratic and Liberal parties can be considered mainstream not only because they take relatively moderate positions but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they are committed to respecting liberal democracy.
But consider the increasingly illiberal tone of the Austrian Christian democrats under Sebastian Kurz (now that country’s ex-Chancellor after retiring to spend more time with his family and to defend himself against corruption allegations).
Think too about some of the aggressively populist language, constitutional short-cuts, and flouting of international law pursued by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Boris Johnson, as well as the harsh discourse on integration and immigration advanced by Mark Rutte’s liberal party in the Netherlands. Will we always be able to classify such parties as mainstream right?
It seems premature right now to group them, as some well-respected and worried liberal journalists have already begun to do, alongside the Trump-era Republican Party, Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary and Kaczyński’s Law and Justice in Poland. But in the future, who knows?
As those examples show, the far right doesn’t always start out as far right, while the literature on ‘democratic backsliding’ stresses that the slide into ‘illiberal democracy’ is often gradual rather than sudden – so incremental that, by the time it becomes undeniable, it is too late to do much about.
In short, if mainstream right parties in Western Europe conclude that the best way of arresting their decline and beating the challengers on their flanks is to effectively transform themselves into populist radical right parties, then scholars, policy-makers – and the rest of us – should start seriously worrying about the health of the liberal democracy we have, perhaps, taken for granted for too long.
Margaret Thatcher was no stranger to by-election defeats. But she’d got used to taking them in her stride. Between 1979 and 1987, her Conservative government lost seven of them – six to candidates representing either the Liberals or the SDP, the two parties that went on to form the Liberal Democrats. But that didn’t stop the Tories winning huge majorities in 1983 and 1987.
The loss of the Eastbourne by-election in October 1990, however, proved fatal. Like the defeat in North Shropshire , its impact had much to do with the fact that it was considered a rock-solid Conservative seat. Indeed, it had been held by the party, with only one interruption (occasioned by the Liberal landslide of 1906) since its creation in 1885.
Moreover, the defeat was all the more spectacular because it was so unexpected. Only a week before polling day, the prime minister, speaking at the Tory Party Conference had mocked the Lib Dems (who’d finished a humiliating fourth behind the Greens at the European Parliament elections the year before) by comparing their avian avatar to Monty Python’s dead parrot.
Thatcher’s confidence was in some ways understandable. The contest had been brought about by the IRA’s assassination of the popular sitting MP, Ian Gow – one of Thatcher’s closest confidantes. Surely the voters of the small seaside town, who had returned Gow with a 17,000 majority (equating to 60 per cent of the vote) just three years previously, would do their patriotic duty and replace him with another Tory?
That they decided not to was down to a number of factors – some of which provide a marked contrast with those that led up to yesterday’s stunning result.
First and foremost was the fact that the government had become deeply unpopular as the economy ran into trouble, as its controversial poll tax began to bite, and as Cabinet arguments over Europe raged. Indeed, by October 1990 it had been behind in the opinion polls for well over a year, with Labour regularly recording the kind of double-digit leads that Keir Starmer and his colleagues have so far only dared to dream about.
But then there was the campaign itself. For one thing, the Conservatives made the mistake of picking as their candidate, Richard Hickmet, who had been ousted by the voters of faraway Glanford and Scunthorpe after four years as their MP between 1983 and 1987. If he hadn’t been good enough for them, locals reasoned, why was he good enough for what the town’s tourism-inspired postmark labelled ‘The Suntrap and Showplace of the South’? Nor, it turned out, were they too impressed by a Tory campaign that, understandably shying away from defending the government’s record, seemed to hint that voting for anyone other than the Conservative candidate would provide succour to Republican terrorists.
For another, the Lib Dems may have looked down but they were actually far from out, not least because the party (and its Liberal predecessor) had for a long time been well-represented at local level. That gave it a base from which to fight one of its classic, hyperlocal, ‘pavement politics’ by-election battles, masterminded – not for the first or last time – by its campaign guru, Chris Rennard. Added to that, the Lib Dems’ leader, former soldier Paddy Ashdown, was by then beginning to find his feet on the national stage.
The result, when it came, was quite something. The Lib Dem’s candidate, David Bellotti, won just over half of the vote and was returned with a majority of 4,550 on a swing of 20 per cent – nowhere near the swing recorded last night but still enough to shock Tory MPs, not least the 160 or so sitting for constituencies where the Lib Dems were presumed to be in second place whose majorities were smaller than Ian Gow’s had been.
Had the party only just begun to lose its opinion poll lead to Labour, as is the case now , perhaps the fear of losing their seats might not have been enough to panic so many of Thatcher’s troops. But their unhappiness with her leadership had been growing for some time, and they had given up hope of her changing her style or her policy stances. Maggie, they felt, was finally past her sell-by date. Can the same be said of Boris?