The pantomime idiocy of No.10 masks deep divisions in Tory ranks, argues David Jamieson.
“We need the return of a Conservative Government” – the verdict of Lord Ashcroft, former deputy chair of the Tory party and an influential figure in the grey backdrop of the London establishment.
This is the claim now percolating among Conservative politicians, donors, business figures and their friendly civil servants in Whitehall. We needed the populist Johnson – the argument goes – with his ambivalence toward traditional Tory economic doctrines and pretence to representing a whole-British identity, to stabilise the country after the Brexit vote and see-off Corbynism. But now we need a return to the ‘Treasury Party’ of fiscal hawks to discipline public finances, demand fresh sacrifices from the population, and control expectations at a time of economic stagnation and spiralling costs.
In their resignation statements, former health minister Sajid Javid and former Chancellor Rishi Sunak could not have been more explicit about their differences. Javid thanked Johnson for defeating Corbyn and ending the Brexit impasse, but said the country needed a “new direction”. During Prime Minister’s questions, he said imperiously that he came into politics “to do something, not to be someone”. There’s the natural party of government, then there’s one man and his ego.
Sunak in his resignation statement, and in an evident push for leadership, was more programmatic:
“Our country is facing immense challenges. We both want a low-tax, high-growth economy, and world class public services, but this can only be responsibly delivered if we are prepared to work hard, make sacrifices and take difficult decisions.
“I firmly believe the public are ready to hear that truth. Our people know that if something is too good to be true then it’s not true. They need to know that whilst there is a path to a better future, it is not an easy one. In preparation for our proposed joint speech on the economy next week, it has become clear to me that our approaches are fundamentally too different.”
This pitch for the future direction of the ruling party is not difficult to decipher. A debate, between fiscal hawks and Johnson’s ill-defined but more pragmatic approach to state intervention in larger stretches of the economy, has bubbled away beneath the surface for years. The backdrop, of course, is public anxiety over living costs and the threat it promotes of industrial and civil unrest.
From the start of his leadership, Johnson tried to anticipate and contain this debate by controlling the Treasury. It should be remembered that Javid himself was replaced by Sunak in 2020, after the former refused to accept that his own aids would be replaced by those loyal to the Prime Minister. In those days Johnson was direct – there would be no room for conflict between the Chancellor and the overall personal political project of Boris Johnson – who himself represented the new electoral coalition of 2019. Sunak was quite widely interpreted to be Johnson’s placeman, since he was willing to accept this new centralised arrangement.
But the Tory party has organic links to British capital and the state machine, which means there are real limits to any figure attempting a more centralised and personal form of governance. Johnson believed his success of 2019 made him impervious to overthrow. But he is discovering that he too is expendable.
The wider froth – the endless series of allegations and scandals tumbling out of Westminster – is unlikely to hurt the Tories alone. Rather, as with the MPs expenses scandal, which looks restrained by comparison, the wider population are likely to conclude that the entire world of official politics is corrupt and decadent. They would not be wrong in this conclusion.
Since the war in Ukraine began, talk of a more coherent European order has re-emerged, including of new transnational organisations that will coordinate those states within and without both the EU and NATO. The Brexit impasse was a torrid time for the Conservative party and wider British establishment, and it is likely that powerful forces will seek a long-term re-convergence with transnational power.
Labour are irrelevant to proceedings, except that they eye the possibility of slinking quietly into government with little meaningful programme, amid the rubble of the Tory party. These events are threatening to sideline the SNP, whose best bet now is exactly what Nicola Sturgeon has outlined – a ‘de facto referendum’ on Scottish independence, through the SNP at the next UK general election – the timing of which is now impossible to predict. This strategy would not secure independence, but it would see the party go into an election with something distinctive to say, and perhaps a bargaining position in the aftermath.
What none of these parties posses is any answer to the worsening economic conditions for tens of millions of workers, to the democratic failures of the British state and its international treaties, or an alternative to the system of global strategic and military competition from Europe to the South China Sea. Elite hopes, that the chaos of recent years could be repressed and a new stability achieved, are fading rapidly.