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Optimism is essential in politics. But the borderline between optimism and wishful thinking is easily overstepped. In one of my earliest jobs I interviewed London Labour party candidates and activists during the 1983 general election. One after another they said with passionate sincerity that Labour would win by 50 seats, and proceeded to lay out the compelling reasons why this was so. The following week the Conservatives won the election by nearly 150.
Plenty of those who frequent the palace of wishful thinking today have opined with similar certainty recently that Boris Johnson is now dead in the water. They have said he is not happy, that he is still ill, that he realises he is not up to the job, that he can’t cope with Covid. The Conservative party is said to be in ferment, Tory backbenchers are apparently unbiddable, and the public sees that it bought a political turkey last December. By spring, therefore, Johnson will be gone, to be replaced by Michael Gove, Rishi Sunak or some other freshly fashionable alternative.
This is not a version of the next few months that can be altogether ruled out. It could possibly happen. In that respect, it is less fantastical than the Labour belief in 1983 that Michael Foot was about to unseat Margaret Thatcher. After all, the reports about Johnson’s downbeat mood appear true, as far as they go. He is manifestly struggling with the politics of the pandemic. The Tory party at Westminster is irritable about new lockdown measures, the law-breaking powers in the internal market bill and the proposed bonfire of planning regulations.
Johnson’s faults are also much more obvious now. Sasha Swire, in her newly published diaries, that are without doubt the political must-read of the autumn, calls Johnson “an island, a spinning, mad island. He gets by, by having very good people to do the work, and the detail.” But that indulgent judgment looks out of date amid the renewed pandemic, and after Barnard Castle in particular. Swire’s August 2019 observation that “you can’t quite believe he is there. In that job! But he is, and it’s going to be a hell of a ride” now sounds much more ominous.
It is also true, once you get beyond the issue of Brexit, that there is not much intellectual or ideological coherence in the Johnson government or the Johnson Tory party. The 2019 election united the Conservatives about Brexit. The issue gave the shires and the post-industrial towns something in common. But they are not united about much else. There are few shared instincts. Attitudes to taxation and the public finances, for instance, vary wildly, as Sunak is discovering as he prepares a mightily difficult spending review. Approaches to Covid are equally hard to reconcile in a party where some regard most government measures as busy-bodying nonsense.
The result is that attempting to grasp the political and intellectual geography of the Conservative party today is a bit like trying to master the map of late medieval Germany, in which all those little princedoms and sleepy bishoprics where nothing ever happens coexisted alongside extremely prosperous city states and a few pockets of Anabaptist fanaticism. In historical terms, though, the sheer oddity and newness of the current Conservative coalition can hardly be overstated.
Whether in the long term this proves to be a strength or a weakness is in Johnson’s hands. However, it is clear that things could go very badly wrong for the government over the next year, especially on Covid and, above all, the economy. And if Johnson is not enjoying the job then another of Swire’s observations about him would come more into play. “He is curiously vulnerable and longs to be loved, and cannot understand it when he is not.” That is the reason why a messy political divorce between the party and Johnson cannot be entirely ruled out.
And yet, writing Johnson off is comfort zone copy, easy to compose and a pleasure for many to read. But it risks underestimating him and his party. Support for the Conservatives has been robust, in spite of the mishandling of the pandemic. There is a different, obviously less exciting, but actually rather more plausible way of looking at the possibilities of the coming months. In this version of the winter of 2020-21, Johnson struggles through, doing just enough to maintain and perhaps revive confidence in his leadership and government, with the result that he again gets lucky.
A government minister put some meat on the bones of this argument for me this week. Just suppose, he began, that the UK gets a post-Brexit deal with the European Union. It is hard-wired into some thinking that Johnson does not want a deal. Yet both the UK and the EU have a significant interest in such an outcome, whatever the Tory party’s leavers and their press backers say. The internal market bill, for all its many objectionable provocations, does not rule a deal out. The deal would happen at the last possible moment, and it would disappoint remain and leave critics alike. But it would also mean that Brexit ceased to be an issue, and it would mean that Johnson would have a victory.
Suppose, next, something else that is also uncertain but not improbable. Imagine that the Covid measures that were introduced this week, and other measures that will inevitably follow, are in fact gradually effective. Opinion polling suggests there is less Covid fatigue in the country than Johnson assumed in the summer. If the public accepts that this is a long haul, that Johnson is now getting back on the right track and, crucially, if Rishi Sunak makes the long haul less cruel for businesses and employees, the politics of the pandemic could look different in the spring – both to the public and to the Tory party itself.
Labour’s modest rebuilding fits in here. Keir Starmer is polling ahead of Johnson. But Labour is mostly polling behind the Conservatives. That may change, perhaps soon. Yet Starmer was right to stress this week that Labour still has a long road ahead. It has not yet broken through. The new Tory MPs who sit in former Labour seats are a powerful lobby group within the party. Many of the old “our people” Tory MPs are uncomfortable with demands for more big government. But the new MPs have Johnson’s ear, and Sunak’s too.
In the unprecedented politics of the Covid and Brexit eras, only a fool would rule out the possibility that Johnson’s Tory party could crumple under the impact of events. These are volatile times. Yet it is at least as possible, and probably more, that the British politics which emerges from the tests of the coming months could look pretty familiar. This may be a dire government led by a shabby prime minister. But don’t deceive yourself into thinking they are hanging on by the fingernails, because right now they are not.
• Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
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