There’s trouble ahead for the new Prime Minister  

by
26 July 2019

Boris Johnson inherits a deeply divided party and country, says Mark D’Arcy. Everything hinges on the outcome of Brexit

THE transition to a new Prime Minister is always a rather eerie interlude in the twin worlds of Westminster and Whitehall. In Government, the flow of paperwork dries up, as decisions are reserved to the new regime; in Parliament, the normal jousting becomes an empty ritual. Everything — policies, strategy, and the composition of the Government that implements them — will be reset when the new leader arrives.

So, what will Prime Minister Johnson do?

Let’s start by rewriting Bill Clinton’s famous proverb: “It’s Brexit, stupid!” Brexit determines everything else, from high economic policy to the low politics of party unity and General Elections (Comment, 29 March).

The Brexiteers who made Mr Johnson their standard bearer want a tough, assertive, confident approach to the task of leaving the European Union. They blame the Government’s current woes on a leader who, surrounded by capitulationists in the Cabinet and the civil service, always saw Brexit as an exercise in damage limitation rather than a chance for national renewal.

Mr Johnson has promised “positive energy” to deliver Brexit, and that is taken by his core Brexiteer supporters to mean an unambiguously Brexiteer Cabinet, purged of Cameron-May heldovers, as well as the removal of mandarins who fail to get with the programme. They would be committed to delivering a “clean Brexit” rather than a reheated version of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, which the core Brexiteers always believed would lock Britain into a kind of granny annexe to the EU, unable to pursue their vision of a global trading nation.

There would be a political cost to this strategy, not least the creation of a new set of backbench critics. The appointment of the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith as Mr Johnson’s campaign chairman, however, is an interesting straw in the wind. Elected as Conservative leader in 2001, he sought to reach out to centrist Conservatives, but found himself unseated by internal critics on his left.

Advertisement

How will that experience play out in his advice to the new leader? Will he advise the new PM to deal with internal critics, before they deal with him? This, incidentally, is why the Johnson camp wanted the leadership election to go to the party membership and why they have campaigned so intensively; they are arming themselves with the most decisive possible mandate.

 

IT LOOKS as though the key criterion for the top offices in a Johnson government will be an ability to defy what the Brexiteers see as defeatist civil-service advice about Brexit. Particularly critical will be the appointment of a new Chancellor who is willing to turn on the spending taps to contain the shocks from a no-deal exit, even in the teeth of opposition from his or her officials.

And the available “war chest” for a post-Brexit spending spree is the key to how the new Government proceeds to govern — and to how it may seek to heal the deep divisions left by the referendum. If the UK does not have to hand over £39 billion in outstanding euro-liabilities, the Brexiteer argument goes, and no longer has to pay its £10- to £11-billion a year membership subscription, there will be cash at hand, and that’s before you count in the estimated £26 billion of “fiscal headroom”: potential for extra borrowing, without exceeding the Government’s target.

The optimists talk about a budget to “turbo-charge” the economy. Brexit pessimists dispute all this, and argue that the money would go on attempting to cushion the impact of a no-deal departure.

This conversation is the key to the prospects for a Johnson government; it is fruitless to speculate about what it might do on housing, or social care, until the basic question of Brexit is resolved. Only then might there be ministerial attention, or cash, to spare for other issues.

PAPA

To be sure, the Conservative leadership race produced all kinds of spending promises, from tax cuts for business or individuals to a massive increase in defence spending; but, however much money is available, there will not be enough to meet all of them.

I suspect that any available cash will be directed into “One Nation” social programmes, because that was how Mr Johnson approached the London mayoralty (he prioritised public transport as the best way to help the worst-off, supporters say), and it is also one way to keep the Conservatives together.

Mr Johnson inherits a deeply divided party, riven by internal schism, under electoral threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party on its right, and from the revived Liberal Democrats on its left.

So, as a matter of political strategy, while the Brexiteers get their Brexit, Cameroon One Nation Remainers will be invited to hold their noses and look at the cash being put into their causes: housing, adult social care, more generous benefits, and the like. And the hope is that this will secure both flanks of the Conservative coalition and win a majority at a General Election, which will allow a Johnson government real freedom of action.

 

BUT pulling both wings of the Conservative Party back together again will be no simple trick; for, while he is their leadership choice, many Brexiteers are from the Thatcherite-Libertarian wing of the party, and do not regard Mr Johnson as truly one of their own. “A great big pinko, really,” was one description offered to me from a supporter adorned with a “Back Boris” lanyard ( another, more politely, called him a “visceral liberal”). They might be prepared to swallow a soft-edged approach to public spending, so long as it is combined with a Brexit that they can believe in; but, in the long run, they will want policies in line with their instincts.

The Remainers, meanwhile, are cautious about being invited to support something that they are queasy about now, in return for hazier promises of future social programmes that might not materialise.

And this also dances along one of the more interesting but less obvious divides in Conservative politics, often portrayed as a simple split between Thatcherites and centrists. There is a more subtle gradation between the High Tories, who see themselves as the authentic inheritors of Disraeli’s “One Nation” conservatism, and the Cameron-style Tory left (a category which used to be considered to include Mr Johnson).

The High Tories want action on issues such as payday loans and zero-hours contracts, where Libertarian/Thatcherites are a bit more cautious about interfering with the market, but also detect a dangerous penchant for statist intervention on the Tory left, as well as an unwelcome “softness” on law and order, and immigration. This divide could soon be tested when the new Government considers its immigration policy. Will the priority be allowing in the workers that industry wants, or keeping down the overall numbers?

The Tory left, meanwhile, support taxes on sugar and Cameron-style interventionist social policies, and are wary of anything that smacks of a “Singapore-style” free-market vision for Brexit Britain.

Advertisement

 

IN THE optimistic Tory reading of the Johnson premiership, a decisive Brexit would then be followed by a generous comprehensive spending review (the big shake-up of where the public money goes, which is conducted every few years), which would deliver extra cash for social priorities; and then by an autumn Budget, at which a voter-friendly package of tax cuts would be announced. Then brace yourself for a spring election.

That is what one Conservative MP called the “Goldilocks Scenario”, in which everything goes just right. But it all flows from the assumption that Brexit works out well. Suppose that it does not?

Suppose, instead, that the arrival of Prime Minister Johnson solidifies and even expands the caucus of Remainer Tories around the former Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, who has led a series of rebellions against Mrs May’s government, to forestall a no-deal Brexit. In that case, he will be even more checkmated in the Commons than his predecessor — which could well mean an early General Election in less propitious circumstances, with the Conservatives effectively running against “the Remain Parliament.”

Mr Johnson would also be defending another flank. Last week, one of the most disaffected Conservative MPs — the former Minister for Defence Procurement, Guto Bebb, who represents a Welsh seat, Aberconwy — announced that he would not stand at the next election, and then loosed a deadly parting shot: that the Conservatives had become an English nationalist party.

That remark was instantly weaponised by the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, and will certainly be revisited in Wales. The point here is that, without the 13 Scottish and eight Welsh seats that the Tories won in 2017, they probably would not be in power. Brexit might cost them dearly beyond England, and could even break up the UK.

 

NO ONE can know how all these factors would play out, if Prime Minister Johnson was forced to go to the country. “The Tories are terrified of an election; we’re petrified of an election,” one Labour MP told me. Feed a four-and-a-half party system (Conservatives, Labour, Brexit, Lib Dems, and Greens) in England through the first-past-the-post electoral system, and it is impossible to predict the result. It is easy to imagine some seats being won on less than a third — perhaps barely a quarter — of the vote. Consider the result: a generation of MPs trimming their sails nervously, permanently on the alert for a shift in the political winds that might unseat them.

Mrs May’s parting shot was a speech deploring the loss of the art of compromise and the poisonous mood of contemporary politics. Recapturing that elusive ability to disagree well will be a task every bit as challenging as Brexit — and every bit as vital.

Mark D’Arcy is the Parliamentary Correspondent for BBC News.

Church Times: about us

Latest Cartoon

The Church Times Podcast

Interviews and news analysis from the Church Times team. Listen to this week’s episode online

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)