Boris Johnson’s Conservative Revolution

(Bloomberg Opinion) — When, how or if Britain gets an early general election is unclear, but Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government has been on a snap-election footing since Day One. Whenever it comes, and whatever the state of Brexit at the time, the next election could dramatically redefine the battleground of British politics.

One possibility is a vote of no confidence in Johnson’s government sometime this autumn; Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn signaled Monday he would put down a no-confidence motion in early September. Even without that trigger, it’s hard to imagine that Johnson can govern for very long with a majority of one and no obvious mandate for the radical course he has proposed.

The slew of headline-grabbing pledges from Johnson may look like the usual campaign giveaways. But the program of tax cuts for the wealthy, large spending increases for hospitals, new rail links in the north, 20,000 new police recruits, and, of course, an ironclad promise to leave the European Union — with or without an exit deal to smooth the way — on Oct. 31 are more likely part of a revolution within the Johnson camp to reposition the party with voters. Indeed, if you spliced Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party with a traditional Labour Party platform, the resulting policies would look a lot like those of today’s Conservative government.

And that’s precisely the idea. The 2016 Brexit referendum famously cut across party lines, with both Conservative and Labour voters among the 52% who voted to leave the European Union. Johnson seems intent on refashioning his party in the image of that majority.

To do that, Johnson needs to lure voters away from the Brexit Party, which was the biggest winner in May’s European Parliament elections, and also attract traditional working-class Labour Party voters in Leave-voting areas such as the West Midlands (some of whom also voted for the Brexit Party). A number of conservative thinkers have been advocating a shift in policy that would appeal to precisely those voter groups.

Those thinkers may differ somewhat on prescriptions, but they start from the point that the traditional conservative emphasis on individual freedoms and minimal state interference made sense when the right was leading the fight against Communists and the socialism that was still prevalent in the 1970s and ’80s. But today’s problems — the skills gap, obesity, inequality — require a different approach; this Margaret Thatcher-era understanding of conservatism is not fit for the post-austerity, post-globalization age.

The new conservatism must instead place just as much value on “locality and security,” argues Tim Montgomerie, the Conservative blogger and activist who created the influential ConservativeHome website and recently set out a blueprint for the new government in Prospect magazine:

Too much of the contemporary right only sees each of us as taxpayers, entrepreneurs or employees. The contemporary left only sees us as workers, welfare claimants, or members of identitarian groups defined by gender, sexuality or ethnicity. Neither sees us first and foremost as parents, children, neighbours, churchgoers, volunteers or, for example, patriots.

Montgomerie’s “conservatism of the home” challenges the party to elevate localism above material individualism. He calls for vigilance against corporate cronyism and helping those who have lost out during austerity. Tax cuts, he argues, should target the casualties of globalization (Johnson’s would reward its beneficiaries). U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren’s agenda should be right at home in Britain’s Conservative Party, he argues. There is much to recommend the approach, though it’s far from clear that Johnson’s is anything as thoughtful. 

Nick Timothy, a Conservative thinker and former adviser to Theresa May (whom many blame for her disastrous 2017 election strategy), argues that economic liberals — those traditional Thatcherites who are suspicious of state intervention — have lost touch with today’s voter. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, he praised Johnson’s announcement of a 1.8 billion-pound ($2.19 billion) cash injection for the National Health Service as an example of how Conservatives can show commitment to “security and solidarity” as their core offering to voters.

To complete his internal party revolution and test the new voter base, though, Johnson needs to win an election. An election immediately after a no-deal Brexit would surely be the preference: He could claim to have delivered on the referendum, promise a raft of new spending initiatives, and ride a wave of relief (if not euphoria) before it crashes on the reality of a fraught new trading order — and the prospect of years of negotiating with the EU and others.

Johnson, the consummate campaigner who has already delivered his party a bump in the polls, must like his chances. Corbyn may be threatening a no-confidence vote, but the Labour Party is in crisis, divided over Brexit and helmed by an unpopular leader who cannot be confident of his own party’s election chances. The Liberal Democrats have been revived as a Remain-supporting opposition party, but their new leader, Jo Swinson, remains untested, despite her party’s recent by-election win in the Welsh seat of Brecon and Radnorshire.

It’s a gamble Johnson could also lose. It is true that Parliament has not figured out a way to stop Brexit from happening on Oct. 31, but if moderate Conservatives opposed to a no-deal Brexit prove to be anything as united and ruthless as hard-line Brexiters were under Theresa May, that showdown surely lies ahead. A united front among Remain-supporting parties, as demonstrated in the recent Brecon and Radnorshire election, could also prove a powerful force. And any backlash from markets and investors would be a blow to Johnson’s claims that Brexit is a beacon of opportunity.

If that happens, Johnson may ultimately need to recruit Farage — the man he said needed to be put “back in his box” — to help. Whether what emerges from the other side of this fog can still be called a small-c conservative party remains to be seen.

To contact the author of this story: Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

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