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Boris Johnson has Exposed a Void at the Heart of Conservatism

There is a growing consensus that the Prime Minister’s days are numbered – but his party has few ideas about how to renew itself or the country, reports Adam Bienkov

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak. Photo: Leon Neal/Reuters/Alamy

Boris Johnson has Exposed a Void at the Heart of Conservatism

There is a growing consensus that the Prime Minister’s days are numbered – but his party has few ideas about how to renew itself or the country, reports Adam Bienkov

“Boris is toast.” That was the verdict of one of the Prime Minister’s former senior officials and allies, who Byline Times spoke to this week.

This view, which is now a majority one in Westminster, may be proven wrong. Some Conservative MPs believe that there is still a chance the Prime Minister could ultimately recover.

However, the majority consensus among both Conservative supporters and opponents of Boris Johnson is that he will not lead them into the next election.

“No one, apart from maybe Nadine Dorries or Jacob Rees-Mogg, now thinks that this is a salvageable position,” the former official said. “It’s just a question of when he goes, not if.”

With most people now assuming that Johnson is on his way out, attention is turning to his potential successors.

A poll of Conservative Party members for Channel Four News this week found that a clear majority now back the Chancellor Rishi Sunak as their next leader, well ahead of his nearest rival Liz Truss.

But, while most in the party now believe the Chancellor to be their best bet, there is little enthusiasm for the prospect of a Sunak premiership. Even among his supporters, there is growing unease that he may simply be a more marketable version of the current Prime Minister.

“My worry is not so much that as Chancellor he has spent lots of money, because he’s had to do that, but just that he hasn’t really done anything else,” one Conservative supporter of Sunak said.

“My fundamental worry with him is that he is just a little bit too much like Boris. He is too much of a crowd-pleaser with too much of an eye on the opinion polls.”

This concern, that beyond the glitz of ‘Brand Rishi’ there is little of substance, is one that could easily extend to Johnson’s other likely successors.

Liz Truss has risen to prominence in the party due to her carefully-managed photo opportunities and her boosterish advocacy for Britain post-Brexit. But beyond the social media brand, it is difficult to find any substantial policy agenda.

Similar complaints are often made about the current Prime Minister. Although elected with a large majority just two years ago, Johnson has done vanishingly little of substance in the job. MPs complain that there is little on the parliamentary agenda, with the House of Commons regularly adjourning mid-afternoon due to the lack of business to discuss.

The slate of policy announcements briefed by his team last week in a bid to save his premiership – codenamed “Operation Red Meat” – also had little of substance.

One of the headline-grabbing measures – a plan to process asylum seekers abroad in countries such as Rwanda and Ghana – had been briefed many times over by both Johnson and his predecessors, with the Conservatives first pushing the plan way back in 2003. Asked about the proposal, a spokesman for Johnson failed to confirm that it would actually go ahead this time.

Another plan to abolish the BBC license fee was largely rowed back from by the Culture Secretary once she appeared in Parliament to explain it.

Meanwhile, six years after voters backed his radical plan to take the UK out of the European Union, it is still difficult to work out exactly what the Prime Minister and his Government wants to do with the supposed ‘freedoms’ he campaigned for. 

Economists say that the British economy is already suffering because of Brexit, but Johnson still struggles to explain exactly what the benefits are that justify this cost. In his New Year message, the Prime Minister was reduced to claiming that Brexit had allowed pint glasses to display the crown emblem on them again. In reality, no such restriction had ever existed.

This void at the heart of the Brexit project is one that is present in the wider Conservative Party too. Whereas Margaret Thatcher had a clear and radical vision for the country, the current Conservative Party doesn’t have a similarly clear idea of what it wants to do – other than to remain in power.

This lack of an ideological vision for the country worries some in the party.

“We don’t need another leader who just appeals to focus groups,” one former Conservative advisor told Byline Times. “What we need is somebody who says ‘look this is what COVID means for all of us and this is what Brexit means and I’m going to be the leader that does all the tough stuff’.

“This country really needs some big, serious reformers, but instead Boris’s legacy is that the Conservative Party is now seen as unserious and unethical in the minds of voters and I’m not sure Rishi will really change that.”

Levelling Down

The Government’s upcoming ‘levelling up’ paper was commissioned by Boris Johnson as a means to counter this growing narrative. 

However, reports suggest that Michael Gove, who is producing the paper, has struggled to get any new funding from the Chancellor and has instead been forced to tour other departments in order to beg for initiatives that the Government can take credit for.

Part of the difficulty is that there is little agreement in Government about exactly what levelling up really means or how it can be achieved.

As Thomas Perrett reported for Byline Times this month, beyond the rhetoric, regional inequality has actually increased since Johnson came to power. And rather than levelling up other parts of the country, the Government’s cuts to London’s transport and infrastructure funding means that the main impact of Johnson’s time in power will be a ‘levelling down’ of the capital.

This stagnation may partly be an inevitable result of the Conservatives’ 12 years in power. Like previous longstanding governments there is a sense that the incumbents are simply running out of ideas and running out of time.

“There’s a lot of exhaustion amongst a lot of Conservatives,” a former advisor to Johnson told Byline Times. “But big things need to be done and we’re just not doing them.”

Of course, some governments are able to renew themselves, even after 12 years, and Johnson’s successor may still prove the doubters wrong. However, if the Prime Minister does manage to survive the current crisis then there is little hope of such renewal. 

“We did a deal with the devil [in getting Johnson into Downing Street],” one former ally of the Prime Minister told Byline Times. “And we probably wouldn’t have got Brexit through without him or defeated Jeremy Corbyn in the way that he did. Unfortunately, the election victory went to his head and we are now where we are.”

Part of the reason for Johnson’s success has been the weakness of his opponents.

At the last general election the Labour Party was bitterly divided, with Corbyn finding little support either among the press or the wider public. Until recently, the Conservatives were also fairly relaxed about Keir Starmer.

However, with the polls now having turned, Conservative MPs are starting to fear that they will now lose their seats to Labour.

“There’s a general perception that the Labour Party are much better organised and doing a much better job now,” one Conservative MP and former minister told Byline Times. “There are a lot of competent performers on their frontbench now and there’s a sense that they’ve got their act together.

“I mean, we used to look at the Labour backbenches during the Corbyn years and think ‘thank God not all of those lot are on the frontbench’ and now they are. And look, Starmer isn’t the finished article by any stretch, but he’s on a path that could take them back to power.”

Boris Johnson has been a dominant figure in British politics for more than a decade now, with the overwhelming focus on his ambitions hanging over both of his predecessors as Prime Minister. But, after so many years plotting to get the job, it is now clear that he had little idea about what he actually wanted to do with it.

However, while David Cameron succeeded Michael Howard with a clear plan to change the image of the Conservative Party, even if the substance remained the same, Johnson’s potential successors have not demonstrated any sign of a new vision for the party or the country.

By the time the next general election arrives, the Conservatives will likely have been in power for 14 years under four different Prime Ministers. With little sign of renewal on the horizon, this growing void at the heart of the Conservative project may no longer be possible for them to sustain.

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