At Westminster and around the country Tories are increasingly disillusioned with their leader. As one senior backbencher who voted for Mr Johnson in last year’s leadership contest puts it: “I’m not the only one who has got a severe case of buyer’s remorse.”
Rachel Sylvester www.thetimes.co.uk
Boris Johnson should be addressing the Conservative conference this week as his party’s conquering hero, basking in the glory of having won an 80-seat majority at the general election and then got Brexit done. In fact, the prime minister, traditional darling of the grassroots, is fortunate to be speaking on a video link rather than in person because he might have received a less rapturous reception than normal. At Westminster and around the country Tories are increasingly disillusioned with their leader. As one senior backbencher who voted for Mr Johnson in last year’s leadership contest puts it: “I’m not the only one who has got a severe case of buyer’s remorse.”
By imposing tough coronavirus restrictions and threatening to break international law the prime minister has managed to unite Covid libertarians and constitutional liberals in opposition to his plans. There is also a more profound explanation for Mr Johnson’s increasingly dysfunctional relationship with his party. The Conservative leader is heading a government that is deeply unconservative and so it is not surprising that Tories from both left and right feel uncomfortable with his approach.
Conservatives instinctively want to conserve — the clue’s in the name — but this is an administration of disrupters. Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s senior adviser, is not even a member of the Tory party and treats its elected representatives with contempt. Munira Mirza, Mr Johnson’s head of policy, used to write for Living Marxism, the in-house magazine of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, had a picture of Vladimir Lenin on his office wall and shares his analysis that “sometimes history needs a shove”.
The risk-takers and radicals around Mr Johnson have rejected the traditional Tory respect for continuity and compromise in favour of creative destruction. Downing Street wants to “whack” the BBC, bash the impartial civil service, biff the judiciary and wage a “war on woke”. The prime minister and his aides float hair-raising “blue skies” ideas for wave machines in the Channel and “Operation Moonshot” mass coronavirus testing schemes.
What infuriates senior Tories most is that the Conservative emphasis on managerial capability and economic credibility has also been thrown out of the window by No 10. The extraordinary failure to report — and then trace the contacts of — almost 16,000 Covid-19 cases is only the latest “glitch” from a government that seems increasingly shambolic.
One veteran former cabinet minister and Tory peer denounces the “feckless incompetence” of the prime minister and his top team. “I am a Conservative but we don’t have a Conservative government,” he told me. “Conservatives believe in parliament, they don’t try to bypass it, Conservatives believe in the rule of law, they don’t announce to the House of Commons and the world that they are going to break the law. Conservatives believe in the Union and in trying to hold on to the best aspects of diplomacy like the Good Friday agreement. This is a bad English nationalist government with no idea of where it’s going.”
It is a political tension that also runs through the ministerial ranks. Jesse Norman, the financial secretary to the Treasury and biographer of the Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke — who favoured evolution over revolution — told the Bright Blue think tank at the weekend that “radical change” was “profoundly foolish”.
“Conservatism means acknowledging that institutions are wiser than individuals,” he said. “You could look at many institutions and call them relics of a bygone era, or you could see them for what they are: the product of innumerable compromises that contain a great deal of knowledge and wisdom. That we may fail to understand this is often due to our own limited understanding.” Whether deliberate or not, it was a clear rebuff to the Cummings approach.
In her book Twilight of Democracy, Anne Applebaum writes that all over the world the new populist right “is more Bolshevik than Burkean: these are men and women who want to overthrow, bypass or undermine existing institutions, to destroy what exists”. Many of them were her friends — including Mr Johnson, who was in the Bullingdon Club at Oxford with her husband, Radek Sikorski, the former Polish foreign minister. She describes the “burning resentment” harboured by right-wing ideologues in Poland against the old Communist establishment. “If you are someone who believes that you deserve to rule, then your motivation to attack the elite, pack the courts and warp the press to achieve your ambitions is strong,” she explains.
There is a similar political dynamic at work in this country. Lord Frost, the Brexit negotiator, was recently described to me as an “outsider-insider”, who had worked at the Foreign Office but was willing to challenge its assumptions. “His attitude is: these people never valued me and now I’m back and screw you, I’m in charge,” says one Whitehall source.
You could say that this is a government of outsider-insiders who harbour a grudge against an establishment that they think never took them seriously enough. Mr Johnson was dismissed as a joker, then had the last laugh by getting to No 10. Suella Braverman, the attorney-general, casts herself as the victim of a liberal progressive legal elite when she started as a young barrister in London. She was, she said, “the shy Tory in my chambers of ‘right-on’ human rights lawyers” who overcame the “social stigma” to become a Conservative. Priti Patel, the home secretary, lashed out at “leftie lawyers” thwarting the government’s attempts to control the asylum system. Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, describes herself as a “freedom fighter” standing up to the health and environmental police.
This is the myth the Vote Leave crew have built around themselves: that they are the plucky Brexit-supporting Davids taking on the Remain Goliath. Many of them are, in fact, part of the elite they purport to despise. Mr Johnson was educated at Eton, Mr Cummings’s father-in-law owns a castle, Rishi Sunak went to Winchester College. More importantly they are now in power. The outsiders have become the insiders, populating the corridors of power with their friends and political allies just as their predecessors did — their very own Brexit “blob”.
The anti-establishment radicals are the establishment these days and it turns out that they’re not very good at it. Being responsible for running things is, they have discovered, a lot harder than railing against the status quo. “It’s all very well bashing and dismantling everything but you have got to know what you are putting in its place,” one senior Tory says. “What’s your vision for how it should work? It’s easy to say what’s wrong, it’s difficult to put it right. The lack of competence is what’s really bothering everyone and the problem is now they’re in charge they haven’t got anyone else to blame.”