Writing from London, Chris Bambery surveys the tensions in the Tory party, and reckons that its present class alliance means Boris Johnson may hang on for now.
As MPs trekked bank from the Chamber after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, Boris Johnson’s half apology for holding a party at 10 Downing Street in 2020 still ringing in their ears, there was a distinct feeling that Johnson might survive. Backbenchers were quiet during his humiliation, aware of widespread public anger and polls showing support for the Tories dropping rapidly – and yet a mood persisted that Johnson could hang on.
To understand why, we need to consider the character of today’s Conservative Party. Fifty four Tory MPs must sign a letter to the chair of the 1922 Committee (named after a backbench vote to break from the wartime coalition government led by the Liberal, David Lloyd George) and then a majority vote Johnson out.
A considerable section of Tory MPs, Brexiteers in the main, are not going to do that. Firstly, they identify with Johnson because of Brexit. Secondly, if Johnson was to go the three likely successors do not inspire their enthusiasm. Michael Gove backed Brexit but then stabbed Johnson in the back over the succession to David Cameron. Liz Truss was a Remainer and is considered lightweight by many. Whatever you think of him, Rishi Sunak is obviously the most competent but many MPs would not vote for him for an obvious, if unspoken reason. In addition, Sunak represents a poll of the party resistant to Johnson’s ‘northern strategy’ of securing former Labour seats with high spending.
While the polls are showing deep anger over Boris’ bash, pollsters note that there are still those who accept he is a liar but regard him as a “character”. When he was elected Mayor of London in 2008 I recall people who would have normally voted Labour telling me that voted for Johnson because he was “a laugh.”
Once you might have expected the ‘men in grey suits’ to march into Downing Street to call time on Johnson. The reference is to patrician Tories in their Saville Row suits. Today at Westminster there are few Tory MPs who come from the boardrooms of the banks and corporations. There are some who are very wealthy, but often from the dodgy world of hedge funds. Johnson, like David Cameron, may have attended Eton and Balliol College, Oxford, but he is not a representative figure of the ruling class. And that highlights the disconnect between the Tories and their traditional wards at the top of British capitalism. Once that relationship was very close – Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain came from industrial families, Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold MacMillan were aristocrats, far more blue blooded and connected than Johnson.
The base of the party has always been middle class. According to a new study of the Tories (Falling Down: The Conservative Party and the Decline of Tory Britain by Phil Burton-Cartledge) the typical Conservative Party member profile – retired, from a middle-class occupational background, an owner-occupier, possessing few educational qualifications – is even more defined today. A third of them are in London and the Southeast. Two thirds voted for Brexit, something the people who control economic wealth and investment vigorously opposed.
These Tories don’t like the modern elite because it no longer identifies itself as particularly British, beyond dressing in tweeds for a weekend in the Cotswolds or butchering grouse in the Highlands. It is a globalised ruling class which likes London and Edinburgh but not Nottingham or Liverpool, and is just as at home in New York, Hong Kong or Singapore.
The Tory membership resents their global outlook and social liberalism (which excludes Muslims and refugees). They like Johnson. Rough editorials and opinion pieces in the pages of the Financial Times mean nothing to them.
Yet this party base still has a material relationship to the Tories. As I look out of my window across West London the red lights of construction cranes dot the skyline. There is a property boom going on and it benefits property owners and landlords, which most Tory members in the South East are. As long as property prices and rents rise they have reason to appreciate Johnson’s government, despite his hypocrisy. Ironically, the can also thank the financial speculation of the very cosmopolitan elites they disdain.
It would break new ground for the Tory party to ditch the leader who won them an 80 seat majority just two years ago, and so Johnson may last this out. That was the mood at Westminster. But even if he did another crisis will come along soon to rock his indolent, lying Prime Minister-ship. For now he hobbles on.