Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Thursday 27 January 2022

The damage caused by Boris Johnson and Brexit goes way beyond his office parties


This post is not about the personality of Boris Johnson (for an excellent account of his rise and fall, see Peter Jukes here). Instead it is about whether things will change much with any successor. The general theme of this post is that the damage to the Conservative party caused by both Brexit and Johnson has been so great that any successor will be very restricted in the changes they can make even if they were minded to make changes.

In short, if Johnson goes, can the Conservative party mend itself? To assess this, we first need to outline the damage he has done, the damage Brexit has done and whether there are any silver linings. The next step is to speculate on whether any of the likely successors to Johnson might undo any or all of this damage.

Brexit has done obvious damage to the UK economy. Johnson’s attitude to Brexit has also damaged the Conservative party in a number of ways. To understand this, you first have to recognise that Brexit was always a foolhardy project. As such, it was good at sorting between those who were capable and sensible in the party, and those who were not. Johnson took the attitude of Brexit at any cost, and without compromise of any kind. That naturally alienated those in the party who were prepared to accept the referendum verdict, but not Johnson’s kind of Brexit.

His response to some of these more sensible party members was to throw them out of the party before the General Election, and suspend parliament. Candidates at the General Election had to take a Brexit loyalty oath to Johnson’s kind of Brexit. Once elected, it didn’t take long for Johnson to appoint a cabinet that was notable not for its political weight or good judgement, but to blind loyalty to Johnson, most perfectly willing to do as they were told.

To be fair to Johnson, this effect whereby Brexit acted as a selection device to find the worst candidate and give them the job, was also working at a constituency level, as constituency members tended to be very pro-Brexit. So the parliamentary party itself was gradually electing MPs whose views largely mirrored the right wing press, and who had little time for values like doing the best for the economy, respecting the truth, integrity or following the science.

The two taken together have produced a large group of MPs (perhaps half) that you can almost count on not to make sound judgements in many areas. How can I make such a sweeping statement? I’m afraid Covid has provided an excellent test of good judgement. Do you follow the science in trying to reduce the amount of hospitalisations, deaths and long covid, or do you fetishise not wearing a mask and wanting to get rid of social protections as quickly as possible, whatever the cost. The fact that half of Tory MPs appear to be in the second group gives me all the justification I need to write the first sentence of this paragraph.

Consider Johnson himself. Totally unsuited to becoming Prime Minister, as anyone could see given his past record and how he works. Yet Conservative MPs appointed him because he could win them an election, and now seem to find it hard to let him go. MPs who complain about an ID society when it comes to vaccine mandates, but are happy to make people require ID to vote because it helps them stay in power. Who laud liberalism for themselves while trying to criminalise demonstrations. Who think Lord Frost is an effective operator, and the Europeans will crumble in the face of obstinacy. Who seemed to adopt Johnson’s constant lying all too easily.

Elevation (to MP) and promotion based on a loyalty test (to an idea or to party leaders) rather than because of ability is a constant danger in any government. Unfortunately the Conservative party and this government have taken this to its extreme, because of both Brexit and Johnson. The result is that any new leader after Johnson, even if they had the will to do so, would find it hard to break with the Johnson/Brexit legacy.

If there is a silver lining under Johnson, it is the first hint of a break with the anti-public spending/low tax ethos of the post-Thatcher era of Conservatism. This has been only a hint. Extra money for the NHS paid for by, in effect, a tax hike was largely forced by the growing demand and need for health spending. There has been a partial reversal of earlier austerity in both education and police spending, but the squeeze on justice, local authorities and elsewhere has continued. Levelling up has not happened yet, and some would argue we have had levelling down so far.

Yet this silver lining has been achieved with much complaint for many Tory MPs, many of whom remain wedded to earlier ideas and a neoliberal ideology. Not only will any successor to Johnson have to promise to continue to ignore the science about the pandemic, they will also promise to return to tax cutting ways. This is particularly true if Sunak is Johnson’s successor. (Sunak's likely popularity as leader is considered by Ben Walker here.)

Even if an alternative new leader attempts to avoid returning to the Conservatives comfort zone of low taxes, getting the state (and unions) off the back of firms and so on, they have to contend with the huge obstacle of half the parliamentary party essentially embodying the political philosophy of the right wing press, as well as having to deal with that press directly. The two combined make it almost impossible for a Conservative government to rejuvenate an economy that has become increasingly moribund over time, and not only because of Brexit.

It is moribund because what firms involved in adding value to society rather than just rent seeking need is a partnership with the state, both directly and indirectly in providing the kind of society that allows individuals who might contribute to firm growth to have both the necessary knowledge and imagination to do that well. This is the opposite of what austerity achieves and what a low tax economy and diminished state accomplish. The initial economic dynamism of the Thatcher period (more apparent than real) was achieved by a one-off destruction of older ways of doing things, but also off the back of largely squandering North Sea Oil.

Johnson’s populism may have brought a partial and modest reversal of austerity, but it has also brought something new and extremely damaging to good government. This is the introduction of what is essentially rule by a plutocracy. The leaders group provide the funds for the party to win elections, and in return either help direct the overall political project or get large rewards for themselves or their businesses. The VIP lane for protection equipment for the pandemic was just one manifestation of this way of doing business and the business of government.

The emphasis on who you know rather than what you can do, of rent seeking rather than adding value, is entirely destructive to general prosperity or a fair society. It can only survive as a political force if the government creates and fosters divisions within society, either us versus them (where us are called ‘the people’ by the populist politicians and them are called woke), or ‘the people’ against various minorities or foreigners who are constantly denigrated.

I suspect all a successor to Johnson can achieve is to dismantle this plutocracy. No more regular meetings with the leaders group, and preferably no leaders group at all. An end to constant brinkmanship with Europe, and making some attempt to soften the edges of Johnson’s hard Brexit for the benefit of both our firms and consumers. Some movement towards true one nation Conservatism, and away from constant culture war.

This is, I think, the limit of what progress we can realistically hope for once Johnson has gone. The consequences of Brexit in terms of the quality of the parliamentary party, and the consequences of Johnson in the form of the current cabinet and its modus operandi, will make anything more than this very hard to do. Of course hoping does nothing to ensure that even this it will happen, but recognising the limits any new leader will face does make clear how damaging Brexit has been to the Conservative party.

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