If we focus only on the near term and on Brexit, we are doing precisely what Boris Johnson wishes. But the ramifications of the last few weeks will have effects on politics on the British Isles that are far more far reaching than even the question of EU membership. Let us think about those.
In a remarkably short period of time, the Conservative Party has radically changed. Seven year Conservative Prime Minister John Major is today taking this Conservative government to court, alleging ill intent in advice given to the Queen. Figures like Ken Clarke and Phil Hammond, who to this date have been real senior figures in Tory history, are actually threatened with expulsion.
Even Thatcher accepted that the Tory Party had a wing that tended to be closer to liberal or social democratic ideas, and never tried to throw her “wets” out of parliament. Dominic Grieve told the BBC today that he did not recognise what No.10 is doing as within the traditions of the Conservative Party. That perception is correct. What Boris Johnson is doing is changing the Conservative Party into something fundamentally other.
One fascinating development is Johnson and Javid’s rhetorical break with the traditional Tory right, instead to make populist public spending promises. Promises of 20,000 more policemen, and oodles more funding for schools, colleges and the NHS, are not the usual watchwords of the Tory right. It may surprise you to learn that I am inclined to think that these promises may not just be empty rhetoric, but this bit of populism may have real intent behind it. How this squares with more traditional Tories on public spending like McVey or Patel, or with Johnson’s promises on tax cuts, remains to be seen. But the switch to a more statist right in the economic as well as the civil sphere – something moving closer to the classic fascist model – might be one of the changes we are seeing.
My expectation is that this circle will be squared by a rigorous “good spending/bad spending” divide. Police, prisons, border control agents and of course the military will all be “good” public spending. So will education and the NHS because they are popular. This will be balanced by vigorous attacks on “bad” public spending – especially on welfare benefits, but also overseas aid, devolved administrations and local government.
How this will work out for the Tories electorally is a conundrum. The Tory base rural vote is predominantly Brexit and will probably be little affected. Johnson appears to be prepared to write off the more urbane and middle class vote and thus simply give up on Tory chances places likine Richmond or Bath. His hope must be that the combination of popular public spending messages on the NHS and education, plus the continued harnessing of anti-immigrant xenophobia, will win enough urban votes in Birmingham, Sunderland and Blackburn.
That seems to me very high risk. To take on Jeremy Corbyn in a general election on the basis of who can most credibly promise increased public spending seems strange ground to choose. Plus no matter how much you ramp up the xenophobia or how many upgraded hospitals you promise, the cultural obstacles to getting the people of Hartlepool to put their cross against a Tory remain enormous. The pundits talk as though the Brexit Party vote and the Tory Party vote are interchangeable and it all hinges on whether Farage stands candidates. That is simply wrong. There are many thousands of people in Hartlepool and towns like it who would vote Brexit but won’t vote Tory.
I suspect Johnson and Cummings have blundered into a first past the post trap by being too clever. They have alienated enough educated and liberal Tory voters to lose seats, while replacing them with voters who respond to the populism, but in areas where they won’t be able to take many seats. Tory gains will be limited largely to the Midlands, but outbalanced by losses. In essence, they may get a plurality of the vote but spread too evenly, and FPTP will see them losing ground to the SNP in Scotland, Labour in the bigger cities and the Lib Dems in rich suburbs and county towns.
That analysis stands whether the election is next month or any time to 2022.
If you choose to change a political party fundamentally, you need to be sure that the new version is more popular. Concentrating on the one issue of Brexit, and calculating that he could hoover up all Brexit voters, is likely to be Johnson’s downfall. He appears engaged in a colossal act of hubris.
In Scotland, all of this is still more reason to get out of the toxic politics of the United Kingdom. Nicola Sturgeon should announce now that if there is an early Westminster election, the SNP will fight that election on the basis that victory will result in a declaration of Independence, and Scotland will not then be exiting the European Union at all. The SNP desperately needs to focus on Independence and not on the position of the UK within the EU or on the powers of the Westminster parliament.
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