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Britain has a disorienting government. It is both lazy and hyperactive, ambitious and complacent, dominant and volatile. It zigzags between different policies and ideological positions, confusing commentators, opposition parties and Conservative supporters – and sometimes even its own ministers.
These contradictory qualities come partly from the character of Boris Johnson, with all its chaos and careful contrivance. The government’s eclectic coalition of support is also important. So is the government’s unusual place in the electoral cycle. It is both the latest, wearying instalment of a long period of Tory rule, and an apparent effort to be something fresh: a government that transforms both the country and its own base of support.
Usually, British governments that attempt those difficult tasks are in an early period of supremacy by one party: Tony Blair’s first two administrations; Margaret Thatcher’s first half-dozen years in power. Unlike Johnson’s, such governments tend to have plenty of able, inventive ministers, their ideas and talent nurtured while in opposition.
Such politicians are often intensely interested in the society they want to change. One future Blairite minister frequently took the same bus as me through east London in the 1990s. She spent the commute looking at copies of the famous London poverty maps produced by the Victorian social reformer Charles Booth, and comparing them to what she could see out of the window.
Johnson was often on the same bus. He was a journalist then, but the condition of the East End seemed less fascinating to him. Instead he would sit with his head down and an open holdall beside him, pulling out and poring over the day’s output from the rightwing press. What the Tory tribe was thinking was what mattered most.
All political parties are inward-looking to a degree. But the Conservatives, who occupy such a large political and media space in Britain – so large that they sometimes mistake their party for the country – are more inward-looking than most.
Under Johnson this tendency has grown even stronger. So confident have the Tories become of their position – throughout this unpredictable year, more than 80% of their members have expected to win the next election – that an assumption now pervades the party that only its ideas, personalities and internal battles really count.
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This may be true, up to a point. Many Welsh and Scottish voters have a different perspective. But the Conservatives’ current narcissism, and their incuriosity about those social and political trends that are not going their way, sits oddly with their claims to care about more of the country than previous Tory governments.
Take their conference in Manchester last week, held in a fortified enclave that felt entirely separate from the rest of the Labour-voting city. “Labour doesn’t represent working people any more,” it was claimed; the opposition had become merely “the party of high-status city dwellers”. If the Conservatives want to weaken Labour’s strengthening hold on often heavily working-class urban England and Wales, such wishful thinking won’t help.
Yet despite the relatively modest scale of their “landslide” Commons majority – much smaller than those of Blair and Thatcher – many Tories seem to feel that they don’t need to widen their support any further. A session in Manchester on how they could improve their terrible standing with young people was held in one of the conference’s smallest rooms. It was not full.It’s sometimes argued that the apparent lack of substance behind the government’s expansive talk doesn’t matter. Goals such as “levelling up”, the argument goes, are about political positioning: making the Tories’ new voters feel heard, throwing Labour off-balance.
It has worked for Johnson so far. Much of the media, and many voters, are so invested in the idea that Brexit and Johnson are going to make Britain dramatically better – a belief that is really a faith – that they don’t require evidence yet that this is actually happening. Unconsciously, some traditional Labour voters who have switched to the Tories may not even want there ever to be a clear reckoning about the government’s record. Any revelation that they had been taken for a ride might be too disturbing.
But raising expectations is usually dangerous for governments in the end. Especially when the future being promised looks less attractive to the governing party’s usual backers. Sometimes the higher-wage, more regionally equal economy that the Tories have begun advocating – albeit mostly in response to this autumn’s disruption – sounds a little like something you’d find in a modern European social democracy. Britain in the 1970s, before Thatcher, could even be described this way too.
Such an economy is not what the property developers and financiers who fund the Tories – and who have done very well out of the far more unequal country Thatcher created – probably give their money for. Nor are many Tory voters in the home counties likely to want a country that less strongly privileges their wealthy towns and villages.
But such traditional Tory interests shouldn’t worry too much. Despite having so much power of his own, Johnson still dislikes making enemies of powerful people. When it comes to shaking up Britain, he will probably carry on talking big and acting small.
Near the end of the Tory conference, there was a session about levelling up featuring two of its supposedly most influential advocates: Ben Houchen, mayor of Tees Valley, and the MP Neil O’Brien. The session was in one of the main halls, and both men spoke passionately, if mostly in upbeat generalities.
Yet only a few dozen people heard them. The session had been scheduled right before Johnson’s speech, and predictably most delegates were elsewhere, queueing to hear “King Boris”. In his speech, between all the usual self-referential jokes, he praised “the City of London”, “capitalism” and “our free-market economy”.
On the surface, this is a new kind of government. But the Conservatives never change their priorities that much.
• Andy Beckett is a Guardian columnist
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