How Will the Tories Rule? Understanding Boris Johnson's Political Project
18 January 2020
Far from being “far right” or Thatcherite, Johnson’s new project is “Red Tory”, projecting a communitarian ethos and proposing far greater state intervention in the economy. This post-neoliberal conservatism is a significant departure, but it is plagued by internal contradictions.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative government now dominates parliament, with a majority of 80. Given Labour’s internal disarray, the Tories could govern for another decade. What, then, can we expect? What is Johnson’s political project?
The left presently has few sensible answers to these questions. Since Johnson became prime minister, people have lined up to denounce him as “racist”, “Islamophobic” and “homophobic” and brand his government “Thatcherite”, “extremist”, or even “far right”. The Tories’ election victory brought a new round of hysterics, with headlines reporting that Muslims would flee Britain, while Labour claimed the Conservative Party had been infiltrated by far-right fringe group Britain First. Twitter has been in meltdown over the Tories’ supposed abandonment of refugee children, the Erasmus Plus exchange programme, and workers’ rights.
A clear-sighted view of what Johnson actually stands for is essential if the left is to respond effectively to his government, rather than shadow-boxing against a fantastical enemy. The evidence so far suggests that, reflecting the shifting class basis of the Conservative Party’s electoral support, Johnson is arguably moving towards a post-Thatcherite political project (see Analysis #45 - How Boris Johnson Broke the Brexit Interregnum). Ideologically, this project maintains liberal commitments in some areas, notably foreign policy, but reins them in elsewhere, notably immigration, but through reference to an inchoate sense of British “fair play” and pride in community, not far-right ideology. On the economy, far from deregulating and stripping back the state, Johnson’s manifesto and post-election statements presage a far more interventionist role for the government, and the expansion of public services, in support of market development. These shifts – ambiguously signalled by Johnson’s use of the phrase “one nation Conservatism” – seem to denote a more communitarian politics where government will exploit the freedoms achieved by Brexit to make capitalism work better for “left behind” areas. Some of this even has a Blairite whiff to it, though much of it is stolen from Blue Labour; “Red Toryism” might be an apt label.
Arguably, the Tories’ electoral realignment represents an important moment in wider European politics. An establishment party has managed (so far) to channel and harness an anti-establishment revolt in an era when many believe that only populists, left or right, can do this. If this succeeds and is emulated elsewhere, a broader label might be more fitting: post-neoliberal conservatism, perhaps, reflecting an attempt to re-legitimise capitalism in the wake of the global financial crisis and post-crash austerity.
Not So “Right” on Culture
One of the arguments peddled after the election is that the Tories won because they found it easier to “move left on the economy” than Labour found it to “move right on culture”. The Conservatives have indeed shifted considerably on the economy (see below), but their rightward turn on culture shouldn’t be overstated.
The Tory campaign, manifesto, and style of governing so far have also been decidedly light on populism. Dominic Cummings’ threat to run a “people versus parliament” campaign never really materialised. Parliament was (rightly) blamed for blocking Brexit and stymieing progress on all other policy areas, but there were no appeals to a homogenous “people” or any attacks on a self-serving “elite”. Tory ministers are boycotting Radio 4’s Today programme, and there are some rumblings about free speech and “viewpoint diversity” on university campuses and reforming the BBC license fee, but these are pretty marginal developments. So far, comparisons between Johnson and Trump remain way off-base.
Indeed, the Tory manifesto maintained or extended commitments to important liberal principles. Domestically, the Conservatives explicitly pledge to tackle hate crime, defend LGBT, BAME and religious people from any discrimination or harassment, and reduce barriers to minorities’ and female success. Abroad, they maintain a commitment to an “outward looking” foreign policy, promoting human rights (including, explicitly, LGBT rights, freedom of religion, workers’ rights and female empowerment), multilateralism and the rule of law. The international aid spending target is retained, and the government pledges to lead the world on climate change. This is not a “little Englander” agenda, by any means, but a continued commitment to “global Britain”.
The Tories are “tough on law and order”, of course, but so, too, were New Labour. Their commitments to increase police numbers and prison places, extend electronic tagging, toughen up sentencing and bar foreign criminals from entering Britain could have been made under Blair. So could their commitments to tackle domestic violence and hate crime.
The main departure is with respect to immigration, but even here the reorientation is objectively modest. The manifesto explicitly celebrates immigration’s contribution to Britain’s economy and culture and repeatedly pledges a continued – indeed, freer – flow of high-skilled immigrants like medics, scientists and entrepreneurs, plus post-study work visas for international students. EU nationals’ right to remain in Britain is reiterated, albeit now on the same terms as any other immigrants, as is Britain’s commitment to supporting refugees. The Tories primarily aim to curb low-skill immigration, as well as making migrants pay an additional NHS surcharge. A new points-based system will prioritise immigrants who speak English, are well-qualified, and have job offers.
These changes will doubtless appal some on the liberal left. But these changes reflect an established “common sense”, not the onset of a “carnival of racism and bigotry”, as one commentator characterises the Johnson government. The British Values Survey shows that concern about skills levels and the ability to integrate culturally has risen as concern about racial or religious diversity has steadily fallen. The Tories couch these changes as being about “fairness” and ensuring that immigration policy is under democratic control. One can disagree, but these policies are certainly not “far right” by any reasonable definition (see Analysis #35 - Dear Corbynistas: Don’t Be Blackmailed into Thwarting Brexit).
The real ideological tilt here is towards a more communitarian ethos. The manifesto insists that “Britain is a great country” but is actually extremely light on nationalism. The phrase comes as part of a defence of entrepreneurship and charity work, and the only reference to “our values” are the liberal ones mentioned above. Against claims that “one nation” refers only to English nationalism, the only substantive commitments to national culture are pledges to support the Welsh culture and language. There is a far stronger emphasis on pride in local community, along with material commitments to boost this by regenerating towns, and more modest support for local cultural institutions (£250m) and community ownership thereof (£150m). It’s here that one starts to see how the Tory wolves have stolen the clothing of Blue Labour’s sheep.
The Economy: No Singapore-on-Thames
Many on the left have persistently framed Brexit as a right-wing plot to deregulate, cut taxes and “race to the bottom”, turning Britain into “Singapore-on-Thames”. Smarter commentators noted that this vision was only ever promoted by a radical fringe and had no more than six percent public support. This is certainly not the growth model envisaged by the Johnson government, which instead seeks to increase the protective and interventionist role of the state.
Although the Tory manifesto commits to “balance” between regulation and the needs of business, this is not simply a mask for a deregulatory agenda. Against the left claim that a Tory Brexit will entail a bonfire of labour rights, their manifesto concluded that the past decade shows that existing laws are compatible with sustained economic and employment growth. It promises stronger protections for low-paid and gig economy workers, plus other modest improvements, with the only negative commitment being a pledge to restrict railway workers’ right to strike. The left also argued that the environment was at risk, yet the Tories promise “the most ambitious environmental programme of any country on earth”, positioning themselves as conservationist stewards of the environment and pledging billions of pounds for research into decarbonisation and environmentally-friendly agriculture and fisheries. They have already published an Agriculture Bill that is widely hailed by environmentalists. The Tory manifesto also promises no compromise on workers’ rights, environmental protections, food standards or animal welfare in free trade deals (and repeatedly states that the NHS “is not on the table”).
Nor is the state to be stripped back; on the contrary, a revised state-economy relationship is sketched, wherein public services, government procurement and state-led investment actively support the development of a “high-skill, high-wage economy”. Of course, the state has always necessarily supported markets and capital accumulation – a fact that left-liberal economists now trumpet as a great revelation, but was already well understood by political economists and policymakers in the mid-nineteenth century. Nonetheless, this is a significant ideological departure from Thatcherite neoliberalism, which depicts the state bureaucracy as the enemy of entrepreneurship.
Pledges of increased spending, which began even before the election, are substantial: £14bn extra for education, £34bn for the NHS, and so on. Better-funded public services are justified not simply as an end in itself, “but because they are the bedrock of a dynamic free market economy”. It is of course true, as critics allege, that this will not repair the damage done by previous Tory administrations. But this is a definitive end to austerity – a dramatic departure from the Cameron years. The Tories even try to steal Labour’s clothes on the NHS, depicting themselves as its “stewards and guardians” for most of its lifetime, and pledging an extra £650m per week – which, if actually delivered, would mean that Johnson’s infamous bus-side slogan would not be a lie after all.
More dramatically, the government pledges a £100bn “infrastructure revolution”, aimed at “levelling up” the “left behind” areas that backed Brexit so heavily. These terms were also used in the Labour Party manifesto. The manifesto prioritises transport infrastructure in the North, Midlands and Southwest, with £28.8bn on roads alone, plus enhanced bus services, in addition to the regeneration of town centres. The state is also expected to become a leading investor in science and technology-led growth, including through higher research funding, tax breaks for R&D, the crowding-in of private investment, and the use of public procurement to support innovation and start-ups.
The new government’s goal of supporting a “green industrial revolution” (which the UK is allegedly already “leading”) could have been lifted directly from Labour’s manifesto. Remarkably, the Tories pledge to “work with the market” to generate two million high-quality clean-growth jobs – double the amount promised by Labour. The new government pledges to spend £9.2bn on energy efficiency measures, including insulating homes (another Labour policy), £500m for decarbonisation technology research, and £800m on carbon capture and storage.
Immigration policy fits into this revised political economy model. By limiting low-skill immigration the intention is to refocus the state and employers on training up British employees (albeit still to admittedly low-skill level). This is supported through a £3bn National Skills Fund and £2bn to upgrade further education colleges, plus a target for 20 institutes of technology to be established.
Overall, this is a significant effort to refashion the British growth model, recognising many of the flaws and potential solutions set out by left-wing critics (see Proposal #9 - Fix the Broken British Growth Model). It clearly seeks to cement an electoral coalition that has been emerging for several years, between the propertied classes traditionally represented by the Conservatives and a broadening working-class base. After once remarking “fuck business”, Johnson has pivoted back to the capitalist class, denouncing Corbyn’s hatred of entrepreneurship and the profit motive; but he also seeks reforms to British capitalism so that it works better for “hard working families”. Johnson’s project is an attempt to resolve the hegemonic crisis of neoliberalism precipitated by the 2008 financial crisis – and in electoral terms it has clearly been more successful than the alternative offered by the left, despite being considerably less ambitious and transformative. This is because the Tories were able to wed pledges of economic reform to a commitment to uphold democracy, whereas Labour made increasingly fantastical pledges on the economy to tempt citizens to abandon their commitment to self-determination.
The Limits and Contradictions of the Tory Project
There are four main limits and contradictions inherent in the Conservative project: vision, delivery, fiscal constraints, and the future relationship with the EU.
First, it is far from clear that the Tories really have sufficient vision to revitalise Britain’s “left behind” areas and kickstart economic renewal. Johnson’s bumptious manifesto foreword is the usual faux-Churchillian guff, referring to Britain as a “caged lion” whose potential will be “unleashed by Brexit”. The Tories no longer believe, as Thatcher did, that deregulation would unleash entrepreneurial energies; supportive state intervention is clearly seen as necessary. Nevertheless, the key actor remains private capital, yet there is precious little evidence of “pent up” investor energy in the sclerotic British economy.
Reflecting their ultimate base (especially with respect to financial support) in the finance sector, the Conservatives will do nothing about the financialisation of the British economy, which has starved productive sectors of investment for decades. The sums pledged for state investment to kickstart innovative industrial development are paltry compared to Labour’s proposed £250bn national and regional investment banks. Local authorities emaciated by austerity are to have some role in planning, but little additional funding. The Tories’ plans for towns essentially duplicate Blair’s regeneration projects, which made city centres more aesthetically pleasing but primarily involved retail developments and associated low-skill, low-paid work. It seems unlikely that ten freeports and cuts to business rates will suffice to truly regenerate deindustrialised areas.
Notably, the Tories also have no real plans for housing, despite Britain’s longstanding and severe housing shortage. They remain committed to Thatcher’s right-to-buy for council tenants while vaguely and unconvincingly proposing to maintain the ever-dwindling supply of social housing. Again, they seem set to rely very heavily on private-sector house-builders, while doing nothing to change the big developers’ practice of drip-feeding a thin supply of housing to maintain their profit margins. The Tories instead double down on failed programmes like Help to Buy, while proposing discounts for local buyers and a surcharge for overseas purchasers. These tweaks will not solve the housing crisis, and this is clearly a missed opportunity for economic stimulus.
The second limitation relates to delivery, which is intimately related to questions of popular sovereignty, participation and democracy. “Get Brexit Done” was a depoliticising slogan born of exhaustion and frustration. It calls for moving past this moment and returning to business-as-usual, with a government better-attuned to the so-called “people’s priorities”. This is better than the opposite, but it also fails to engage ordinary people in “taking back control” of their day-to-day lives or the development of their local areas. Vague proposals for “full devolution for England” or a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission are likely to be highly technocratic and take many years to materialise – yet Johnson’s project requires quick wins.
This entails heavy reliance on civil servants with questionable ability to deliver. As the Brexit debacle has shown, decades of EU membership have hollowed out the civil service, leaving it unused to – and deeply negative about – planning or executing major policy innovations. The Tories’ new project will rely on developing policies and institutions on industrial development, innovation, infrastructure, town planning, and so on, that – while limited in comparison with Labour’s proposal – are major departures from established practice.
Dominic Cummings clearly recognises the challenge, hoping to shake up the bureaucracy by hiring a slew of policy wonks, data geeks and “weirdoes” at 10 Downing Street. But this is an incredibly technocratic solution to what is ultimately a political problem. It seems highly unlikely that a small cadre in the Cabinet Office can gain effective control over the entire state apparatus. Cummings’ idiosyncratic faith in algorithms and big data may yield benefits during campaigning, but governing is a very different matter.
A third limitation is the self-imposed fiscal envelope. The manifesto makes highly contradictory pledges of higher spending and investment, on the one hand, and low taxes and fiscal probity, on the other. Apparently at the behest of Chancellor Sajid Javed, it included a commitment to “fiscal rules”: the government will not borrow for recurrent spending but only for investment; public investment will not exceed three percent of gross domestic product; and government debt will continue to fall. There are also pledges not to raise income or value-added tax or national insurance, while cuts are envisaged to national insurance and business rates. The Tories rely very heavily on continued clamp-downs on tax avoidance to raise additional revenue. This is incoherent. The Tories are clearly torn here between their contradictory social bases, promising low tax and borrowing to the propertied classes, on the one hand, and tax relief and higher spending to the working class, on the other.
This contradiction is likely to entail struggles between different parts of the state apparatus tasked with these different agendas. An early skirmish is the already-announced spending review. This is seeking not merely to trim spending to release funds for newly-Tory-voting areas but also to explore changes to Treasury procedures for evaluating potential projects for funding – for example, refocusing on narrowing regional disparities rather than merely gross GDP increases. The suggestion that Johnson might create a new super-ministry to implement his economic agenda may dissuade Javed from excessive fiscal hawkishness, but the struggle seems likely to continue.
The final limit arises from Brexit. What kind of future relationship will Johnson establish with the EU? There are clear signs that he intends to seek a relatively limited free trade agreement (FTA), focused on avoiding tariffs and quotas on goods; Sajid Javed has already warned businesses not to expect close regulatory alignment. Certainly, this is the only arrangement that could be concluded by December, which will become a “hard” deadline when the EU Withdrawal Bill passes. This would permit regulatory divergence and liberate his government from state aid and other restrictions, which would almost certainly hamper his economic strategy. (Even the modest bailout of the airline Flybe has been hedged by EU state aid rules.) The Tory manifesto also emphasises the freedoms that Brexit will bring to change policy to benefit British people, from public procurement to state-led investment.
However, while the EU would benefit economically from a goods FTA (because it runs a substantial trade surplus with Britain), it is not in Brussels’ long-term political interest to allow the UK to make a success of Brexit. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already said that the EU must protect itself against “dumping” – meaning imports from countries that do not accept the EU’s burdensome, protectionist regulations. EU Commission documents also reveal a desire to establish an agency within the British state to enforce EU state aid rules after Brexit.
As the Brexit process has shown the UK and EU are not equal negotiating partners. Britain has been hobbled primarily by domestic political division (see Analysis #9 - Why is Brexit Proving so Hard to Implement?; Analysis #18 - British Politics in Chaos: Brexit and the Crisis of Representative Democracy), which is now tempered. However, Britain’s market size is far smaller than the EU’s, and it would suffer much greater short-term disruption from a no-deal outcome than the EU. For all Johnson’s bluster about “getting a great deal”, the truth is that his Withdrawal Agreement was effectively the Northern Ireland-only “backstop” agreement earlier offered to Theresa May. He is no master negotiator.
If the EU does play hardball, would Johnson really walk away and trade on World Trade Organisation terms? This would undoubtedly entail substantial short-term economic disruption. With a large majority, Johnson is better placed to deal with this than in October 2019. However, this would re-alienate business interests, consume government energies in remedial efforts, and involve substantial economic pain. Johnson would likely ride out the storm, but his project could be blown off course. In any recession, fiscal pressures would mount and – especially if the “fiscal rules” are adhered to – the government’s spending plans could suffer. And, ideologically, the government could tilt towards populist nationalism, rallying “the people” against “Brussels”.
Against all these contradictions and limits sits the recognition that the costs of failure and rewards of success alike are substantial. If the project fails, working class voters, whom Johnson rightly noted had merely “lent” him their votes, will either return to Labour, disengage from politics, or possibly turn back to right-wing populists. The new Conservative MPs from former “red wall” constituencies will vociferously support Johnson’s “red Tory” agenda and demand quick wins. If this strategy works, the Tories will cement their electoral coalition and potentially lock Labour out of power for a generation.
If this vision succeeds, many leftists will falsely claim to be vindicated. “See,” they will cry, “we told you that Brexit would only empower the right!” Apart from the fact that a very different sort of right is being empowered to the neo-fascist one that leftists imagine, as The Full Brexit contributors have always insisted, this outcome was never a foregone conclusion but rather a self-fulfilling prophesy. The EU referendum precipitated a deep split in the British ruling class and within its principal representative: the Conservative Party. Tories headed both the Leave (Johnson) and Remain (Cameron) campaigns. After the referendum, the Tories were increasingly fractious, lost their parliamentary majority, and were humiliated in the European elections. Brexit claimed two Tory prime ministers – Cameron and May. The third, Johnson, was forced to jettison the Democratic Unionist Party and expel tens of his own Remainer MPs.
Brexit was not a gift to the right, then, but a great opportunity for the left – one that it systematically failed to grasp, allowing the Tories to regroup and win a decisive electoral victory. The lesson for the left is plain: no amount of economic promises will win you power if you do not respect the electorate and democracy itself. If the left is to challenge Johnson in the years to come, it must start from there.
About the Author
Dr Lee Jones is Reader in International Politics at Queen Mary University of London and a co-founder of The Full Brexit.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.