Iain Martin: Johnson needs a plan or Tories will oust him

The Times

So much has gone wrong since the Tories won their general election victory a year ago next week that it is easy to take their majority of 80 for granted.

A new report, No Turning Back, published today by the think tank Onward, serves as a reminder that the victory was hard-won, even against Jeremy Corbyn, because it involved the construction of a remarkable new electoral coalition of interests. Quite deliberately, the Tory leadership set out, Disraeli-style, to reposition the party, appealing to patriotic, working-class voters.

This was smart politics that worked. Boris Johnson duly smashed through the “red wall” to turn parts of the north of England blue for the first time in generations. Two in five Tory voters are working class. The Tories hold 57 per cent of the seats in the north and Midlands, their highest share since the mid-1930s.

To retain those seats and to maintain a winning coalition at the next election in 2024 or earlier, the Onward report suggests the Tories must now deliver on “levelling up” in the north, while not neglecting southern Conservative voters. Obviously, this balancing requires a high degree of political dexterity and focus.

At Westminster, where the Balkanisation of the party continues apace, the need for unity has not yet got through to many Conservative MPs. So widespread is the fashion for factionalism that new groupings are continually springing up, with Tory MPs forming ever more interest groups to apply pressure to the prime minister.

The CRG, the Covid Recovery Group, was formed last month and has organised resistance to the virus restrictions. The other CRG is the China Research Group, pushing for a tougher policy against the CCP (Chinese Communist Party). Then there is the Northern Research Group, the NRG. And the grandaddy of contemporary Conservative internal warfare is the ERG, the European Research Group, which organised resistance to Theresa May. Its members are still on guard against any backsliding on Brexit by their former hero Johnson.

With rebellions rolling, the steady corrosion of the government’s whipping operation has started to produce serious fractures. On Tuesday evening, 55 Tory MPs voted against the new coronavirus restrictions. The prime minister’s hide was saved only by the Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer ordering his MPs to abstain. In the Westminster game, this is a significant moment. The opposition knows that the prime minister cannot rely on his majority. It can now bait and switch its position, saying it will abstain on a controversial matter before perhaps changing suddenly, closer to the vote, leaving the Tory whips scrambling.

A senior Conservative MP, a veteran of the whipping war during the doomed attempts to pass a Brexit deal during the May premiership, blames backbenchers for bad habits: “Many Tory MPs are still to be weaned off the Brexit years rebellion adrenaline fix.” Rebels respond that it is the fault of a high-handed No 10, which until his departure recently was built around Dominic Cummings, a revolutionary who actively dislikes the party. A noxious atmosphere was created and trust in Johnson’s judgment is low. Among the discontented are former cabinet ministers. Says one: “No 10 has behaved with such hubris in the last nine months during the Covid crisis that colleagues have concluded the government has no monopoly of wisdom.”

Tory factionalism is not a new phenomenon. In the 1840s the party split over the Corn Laws, with the free-trading leadership peeling away. In the aftermath of the First World War there was internal warfare. In the early 1980s, much of Margaret Thatcher’s first cabinet was opposed to the prime minister’s approach. From the late 1980s until 2019, the party was bedevilled by divisions on Europe.

But what should worry the prime minister now is that today’s divisions don’t appear to be particularly ideological — yet. The situation is more perilous than an arcane row about policy because it rests on that most subjective of qualities, personality. The doubts are about his ability to function effectively in government, to process the flow of paper and decisions and make good use of patronage.

The squabbling is displacement activity while the party works out what to do with him. Johnson was selected as a winner by MPs and Tory members to get two things done: to win an election and to deliver Brexit. The first was achieved and the second will happen, one way or the other, next month.

After that, and mass vaccination against Covid-19, it is fair to ask: what is this government for? Where are the public sector reforms to power improvement? Where are the policies to capitalise on what should be a boom next year unless the government screws it up?

The prime minister may object, with some justification, that he has had a hell of a year and everyone in government looks whacked. He can complain about unjustness and ingratitude all he likes but this is a tough old world and the Tory tribe are a ruthless bunch. So are the voters. There are always alternative prime ministers available.

That Onward report does contain some encouragement for the prime minister. Its authors say that the 2019 election marked a big realignment, making the Tories as much a party of the working class as of the provincial middle class. If so, Johnson has a special connection with those voters who will look to see whether or not he delivers.

If he is to succeed he’ll need an agenda and to implement it he will require the solid support of his party. That means he must learn the art of party management, and quick.

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