Stranded on the political zip-wire
BoJo isn’t why the Conservative party’s in trouble. He became PM because it already was
Boris Johnson’s current multi-pronged political crisis is consuming Britain’s media. It’s not just that journalists detect an imminent prime ministerial fall from the dizzy heights (although Boris has escaped tight spots before now on the zip-wire of his career). It’s also because, with many journalists riven with jealousy or dislike of their former comrade-in-ink, they would like nothing better than to see him brought down.
However, Boris Johnson is not the real story. Despite the often foul-mouthed apoplexy of Conservative MPs who blame him for behaving exactly as anyone who knew him could have predicted he would behave (and many did indeed so predict from the start) Johnson is not the reason the Conservative party is in trouble. The reason it elected him party leader was because it was already in trouble.
The party thought he had the magic touch — which had so far eluded it — in connecting with ordinary people. And so he did. Now, however, it fulminates that he stands for nothing but himself. Well, there’s truth in that too. But what exactly does the Conservative party itself stand for?
This question has been thrown into sharper relief by the shattering resignation yesterday of Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator with the EU and one of the very few of proven competence, skill and backbone in Boris Johnson’s cabinet.
Frost said he had resigned over the government’s “current direction of travel”. He let it be known that he had concerns over the 1.5 percentage point increase in national insurance contributions, the “net-zero” carbon policy and “coercive” Covid restrictions.
Many assumed, however, that the real reason must be that he was unhappy with the reported softening of the UK’s position in its tussle with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol — the attempt to square the circle caused by Northern Ireland remaining under the provisions of the EU internal market, thus effectively separating the province from the UK by a notional border down the middle of the Irish Sea.
Today, however, Frost sought to put that one to rest. He told Sky News that, until the day he resigned, he and Johnson saw entirely eye-to-eye over the EU and that he had resigned merely over the Covid restrictions.
If that's true, then despite his stellar qualities as a negotiator with the EU — based on his profound understanding of what British sovereignty actually means — he would nevertheless sadly seem to be one of the many in his party who don’t understand what the Conservatives should be seeking to conserve.
For the party as a whole hasn’t understood that Britain is undergoing a seismic political change. When the Tories saw the astounding crossover of “Red Wall” erstwhile Labour voters who backed Boris Johnson en masse at the last general election, they concluded that it was all about Brexit which Johnson had delivered for them. But that movement of blue-collar, small-c conservative, former Labour voters was about much more. It indicated that a more fundamental realignment of British politics was under way.
Professor Matthew Goodwin gets it. He writes on Unherd:
The realignment was never just about Brexit or the unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn, even if these elements helped it along. It was always rooted for far more strongly in a deep and profound disillusionment with the political consensus that has dominated Britain for half a century. EU membership. Mass immigration. Hyper-globalisation. Radical cultural liberalism. And a politics built by middle-class graduates for middle-class graduates.
BoJo was thought to be the politician who broke the mould for voters who wanted the mould to be broken. That was because he was determined to honour the 2016 referendum result, deliver Brexit and thus restore the UK as an independent sovereign nation.
At the time, however, some of us read the small print of the Brexit deal he and Frost were constructing and took a very different view. We warned that the Northern Ireland Protocol actually undermined Brexit by leaving the province marooned inside the single market.
Accordingly, a few of us desperadoes argued that the only true Brexit was to depart the EU with no deal at all. But exhausted by the struggle, even the Brexiteer so-called “Spartan” ultras declared the deal ok, thus sealing this flawed agreement and setting up the inevitable battle to rewrite the Protocol which continues to this day.
More than being seen as the man who had finally delivered Brexit, however, Johnson was also seen by his party as a unique political talent — a Conservative whose classless, bumbling charm told ordinary people that he was one of them, unlike the hectoring moralisers of the Labour party’s supercilious Islington intelligentsia.
But once in power, Johnson actually embraced Islington. He became a climate change zealot and committed the country to the economically ruinous policy of “net zero” carbon emissions. He failed to stand up against racist “anti-racism” and thuggery as the “slavery” statues fell and institutions subjected their employees to Soviet-style confessions of their crime of “white privilege”.
He failed to stop a rising tide of illegal migration across the English Channel. He allowed the police to disintegrate into serial incompetence and ideological idiocy while black boys were murdered by other black boys in record numbers. He showed contempt for real environmental issues by going ahead with the HS2 high-speed rail line. Above all, he failed to get a grip on anything.
So far, so disappointing. But his Tory critics have themselves positioned themselves on ideological quicksands. In attacking Johnson from a libertarian, free-market position, they are behaving like the left in allowing ideology to blind them to reality — and increasingly reason itself.
For years — ever since Margaret Thatcher, in fact — such Tories have made a fetish out of liberty. But as I wrote in The Times (£) last week, freedom is a paradox. Without the moral rules that constrain liberty through a sense of communal responsibility and attachment, the outcome isn’t freedom but selfishness, anarchy and harm.
As I have noted before, free-market fetishists in the Conservative party not only reduce everything to economic utilitarianism but have lost sight of key values they should be conserving such as national identity, social cohesion and responsibility in the public square. Such libertarian zealotry has led this Conservative faction to support in the past such threats to national identity, social cohesion and public responsibility as mass immigration and drug legalisation. They view everything through a prism of free-market economics. Thus the Tory MP Marcus Fysh has written:
The whole point of Brexit is radical supply side reform and moving away from the EU model, yet ministers are happy just to give hard won power put in their hands to achieve this to officials who will do the opposite.
But as Nick Timothy points out in today’s Telegraph:
Leading Leave supporters might have spent the referendum fantasising about making Britain a “Singapore-on-Thames”, but most Leave voters wanted national sovereignty, democratic control and stronger solidarity between citizens. The referendum was won among voters protesting against the way the world economy had destroyed job security and killed wage growth. They were not voting for more of the same.
Libertarian Conservatives have also lost the plot over Covid-19. The current threat from the Omicron variant is obvious. Simple arithmetic dictates that, even if for most people the ill-effects of Omicron are relatively mild, its astounding rate of infectiousness means that a very small proportion becoming seriously ill can put catastrophic pressure on hospitals already at full capacity. And if the hospital service collapses under this pressure, that would mean collapsing health care for non-Covid patients too, and disastrous effects on other aspects of everyday life.
Yet the suggestion that people should restrict their activities over the next few weeks in order to prevent this potentially disastrous exponential spread of illness has produced apoplectic fury. And this even though the government’s proposals were mild. They have been called lockdown. But they aren’t lockdown at all.
Last week, almost 100 Tory MPs rebelled against the government’s proposed new restrictions. Their fury was mostly reserved for the so-called “vaccine passports”, the proof of vaccination required to get into nightclubs and other entertainment venues. There has been hysterical talk that this is mandatory vaccination. But it is not. Mandatory vaccination isn’t being proposed in Britain — unlike in certain European countries, where the restrictions to protect against Omicron are fare more severe.
Yet some of these Tory libertarians, who instead of upholding the right of people to know they are reasonably safe from infection when entering a public space because they can be confident from the vaccine passport that everyone is fully vaccinated and is therefore far less likely to be carrying the virus, believe they are somehow defending liberty against fascism. Marcus Fysh MP — he of the supply-side mantra — actually told Radio 5 Live:
We are not a “Papers, please” society. This is not Nazi Germany.
Thus he offensively minimised Nazism, belittled its victims and ludicrously misrepresented a measure to protect life and health as an instrument of murderous totalitarianism.
Far from defending liberty, these Tories shouldn’t be trusted ever to do so since they daily demonstrate to us that they have zero grasp of what tyranny actually is.
Now they have even turned on the public health official whose job it is to warn of the likely effects of the trajectory of the virus — which he is assessing on the basis of what he is seeing actually taking place day by day. As Dominic Lawson wrote in yesterday’s Sunday Times:
As for our present-day chief medical officer for England, Chris Whitty, he was devastating last week when answering a Conservative MP who raised the question of whether the government, advised by him, had been “prioritising Covid over cancer”. He replied: “This is sometimes said by people who have no understanding of health at all ... and when they say it, it is usually because they want to make a political point. You ask any doctor in any part of the system, and what they will tell you is that what is threatening our ability to treat cancer is that so much of the NHS is treating Covid.” For saying such things Whitty has been traduced by some Tory MPs as a sort of socialist ideologue who actively enjoys recommending social restrictions.
One cabinet minister, who had been making Whitty’s point to the “rebels”, told me they typically responded: “You are no longer a Conservative.” Yet Conservatism has always been opposed to ideological purity outweighing the dictates of common sense: it is why it has been such a successful political party. For the great majority of British people it is Whitty who represents common sense, not Sir Desmond Swayne [the Tory MP who told the Commons that the government had been “letting loose the dogs of war” over Omicron]. To denigrate the chief medical officer (a man who has spent many weekends treating Covid patients in hospital, on top of his advisory day job) is, on political grounds alone, unfathomably stupid.
The signs are, however, that most of the public are taking no notice of these Tory libertarians. They are assessing the evidence for themselves, understanding the dangers along with all the manifold uncertainties and prudently restricting their own movements as a result. For this display of calm common sense, self-preservation and social responsibility, the Tory libertarians are abusing them as stupid, sheep-like, hypnotised, brain-washed and so on. Yet this is precisely the contemptuous attitude that the Remainers took over Brexit — the fact that the majority of the public took a different view from themselves proved that the public were abject imbeciles.
If this is how conservatism is now being defined, not only will it lose public support but it deserves to do so.
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