Brexit, Covid and cronyism will kill the Tories off, by Nick Cohen
The Conservatives have been in power for almost eleven years and, if you listen to political commentators, they will be there for eleven more. The fashion in journalism is to say Keir Starmer has blown it, and Labour is as far from government as ever. The apparent success of the vaccine rollout, the story goes, has made the public forget this government’s lethal incompetence during the Covid pandemic. Vaccines have not only saved lives but also given new life to Boris Johnson. The long years of Tory rule will only get longer.
Since the arrival of democracy, periods of Conservative domination have punctuated British history. From 1886 until 1906, from 1916 until 1945, from 1951 until 1964, from 1979 until 1997, and from 2010 until God only knows when, Conservative governments or Conservative-dominated coalitions have enjoyed almost continuous rule. No government is eternal. And although you may not be able to describe precisely how Conservative power will end, you can look at how rot eats away at all dominant elites and be sure it will end.
Superficially, the Conservatives have escaped the yearning for fresh faces and ideas, which finishes off all periods of one-party rule. The post-Brexit Conservative party appears completely different from the party David Cameron brought to power in 2010. It looks to have turned into a quasi-populist English nationalist party and left its beliefs in fiscal restraint and free markets behind. Boris Johnson says, “Fuck business!”, and presides over a Brexit that increases the red tape and limits the markets for the exporters Conservatives once supported. In the 2019 election, it broke down the old northsouth divide and became a party that covered the whole of England rather than just the south.
The Tories are now the party of the old. In the 2019 election, 64 per cent of pensioners voted Conservative
Johnson is the fresh face. Brexit is the new idea. Catering to the new Conservative voters in the Red Wall has given the ancien régime new life and purpose. And yet the Tories hailed John Major as an alternative to the harsh rule of Margaret Thatcher when he took over from her in 1990. He was supposed to offer a fresh face and new compassionate ideas but led the party to a landslide defeat in 1997. In part because the electorate realised that the compassionate rebranding was a sham and the Conservative remained as right-wing as ever.
It is too glib to say that we are out of the Covid crisis and can look forward to “returning to normal”. There might not be a “normal” to return to, and the future will consist of living with the enormous costs and divisions Covid has brought. At the start of the pandemic, optimists predicted a V-shaped recession, in which we would shoot down, shoot back up again and land in the “Roaring Twenties,” the jazz age of the 21st century. The optimists are a little less confident now. The odds are the Twenties won’t roar, but rather sigh with the pain of long Covid, as we try to patch together broken lives and a broken economy.
Vaccines have not only saved lives but also given new life to Boris Johnson. The long years of Tory rule will only get longer
Boris Johnson does not look like the leader to do it. I could take a shot at him. He is such a fat and deserving target I’ve emptied entire ammo dumps into him over the years. But if I stand back and attempt to view him objectively, I can make the following points without, I hope, being accused of bias. Johnson is a good political campaigner but lacks the seriousness and capacity for hard the work needed to govern at any time, let alone in our times. He’s an entertainer from an age of loud celebrity politicians, without the ability to face hard truths. It is not fanciful to imagine that by the time of the next election he will look as much a leader out of tune with the country as John Major did in 1997, or Alec Douglas-Home did in 1964.
There are signs to watch out for that will tell you a shift is coming. If the corruption this government presides over begins to arouse real public anger, if the Tory press cuts its losses and turns on Downing Street, if there is a climate of exhaustion with the Government and an impatient feeling that it is getting in the country’s way.
The opposition’s problems have been discussed to the point of exhaustion. First the Liberal Democrats and then the Labour Party could only beat the Conservatives when it united majorities in Scotland, Wales and the north of England against the Tory south. Now Scottish nationalism has destroyed Labour’s Scottish base and post-Brexit English nationalism has destroyed much of its white working-class base in the north. Labour is now the party of the young, the cities, ethnic minorities and liberal graduates, whose priorities drive its old supporters further away.
Scottish nationalism has destroyed Labour’s Scottish base and post-Brexit English nationalism has destroyed much of its white working-class base in the north.
The discontents of Conservatism deserve to be noted as well. The Tories are now the party of the old. In the 2019 election, 64 per cent of pensioners voted Conservative. In an ageing society, being the party of the old is no bad thing. But the problem with relying on elderly voters is that they have a habit of dying off. Conservatives hope that younger voters are moving to the right as they age and will meet them at the next election. Maybe they are, but there are no guarantees. It’s not just liberal beliefs that will stop them moving.
The generations formed by the 2008 crash are shut out, for the most part, from obtaining the capital in homes and pensions that makes voters instinctively conservative. While they have piled benefits on pensioners, the Conservatives have neglected the suffering of younger voters, and education – the prime concern of middle-aged parents – has been left to wither. Today’s young and middle-aged have no reason to think fondly of them. There is no preordained reason why Labour cannot recover the ground it lost under the abysmal leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
For all the talk of a new party, it is far from clear the Conservatives have changed. Political scientists describe parties as “path dependent”, by which they mean a party is constrained in the choices it can make by its history, institutions and personnel. The Conservatives will not, I believe, abandon the aims of low taxation and spending and minimal regulation to hang on to voters in working-class towns. If Johnson were to try to do so, he would tear his party apart as prosperous Conservative southerners revolted against the idea of being taxed to pay for the north.
Boris Johnson ought to be able to enjoy the authority an 80-seat majority brings. Instead, he is a weak and dithering prime minister beset by backbench revolts
Indeed, the party is already a remarkably fractious organisation. Boris Johnson ought to be able to enjoy the authority an 80-seat majority brings. Instead, he is a weak and dithering prime minister beset by backbench revolts. When Covid no longer dominates our lives, no one knows what his purpose will be. We hear feel-good slogans about how he wants to “level-up” and build a “world-beating” Britain. But what these fine ideas mean and how he intends to realise them, no one can say.
No one can see the future. I am not saying the Conservatives will not win an unprecedented fifth term, or that Labour does not face formidable problems. I am merely suggesting that there is no law that says the 2020s have to be another Tory decade. When you look at a PM without the answers to the problems of our times, the Government’s ideological confusion, the grandiose promises that can never be delivered, the splits, and the corruption that flows from being too long in power, you can see how one-party rule will end. Nothing lasts forever – not even Conservative governments.
Nick Cohen is a columnist for the Observer and the author of “What’s Left” and “You Can’t Read This Book”. He is locked down in a basement in London and losing his mind