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Not believing in very much is usually a strength in a politician, and it has served Boris Johnson well. But there are times when it is a weakness and now is one of those times. He had to pretend to be Conservative to get himself out of a hole earlier this year, only to find that he was like a worm that went down when it thought it was coming up.
In order to buy off a rebellion among Conservative MPs, who came close to getting rid of him in January, Johnson changed the team in No 10, appointing a cabinet minister, Steve Barclay, as chief of staff to replace Dan Rosenfield. Rosenfield was a political appointment but had been a civil servant, whereas Barclay was a political appointment of an actual politician. Andrew Griffith, a Tory MP, was brought in to head the No 10 policy unit. And David Canzini, a more “political” special adviser than Rosenfield, was brought in as deputy chief of staff.
Canzini was quickly credited by Tory MPs with repairing a connection between the prime minister and the backbenches that had been broken by two things. One was the tax rise that MPs were bounced into voting for last year, and which was half-rescinded in Rishi Sunak’s spring statement in March; and the other was the hesitation over Christmas about whether further restrictions were needed to contain the Omicron variant of coronavirus. That was resolved in favour of inaction by Johnson throwing the decision open to the whole cabinet.
Since then, the threat to Johnson’s position has receded, although his recovery had little to do with his outreach work of appeasing rebel Tory MPs, who tend to see themselves as tax-cutting libertarians.
Indeed, there is little about the internal politics of the Tory party that makes any sense. Johnson’s hold on No 10 was under threat because of lockdown law-breaking, which had little to do with ideology. And if he had been ousted, he would probably have been replaced by Sunak, the co-author of the unpopular rise in national insurance contributions.
Now the politics of the Tory party make even less sense. Canzini is opposed to a windfall tax on oil and gas companies that would be hugely popular, on the grounds that it is “un-Conservative”, and is said to have persuaded Johnson to stand firm against it. I haven’t met many Conservative MPs who think that opposition to a popular tax, which would pay for popular help for people facing steep rises in energy bills, is an issue of Conservative principle.
Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, may be one of them, but he is the minister for the oil and gas companies. Suella Braverman, the attorney general, may be another. She told Conservative Home yesterday: “I don’t think a windfall tax would be a great idea, if I’m honest. I think that we want to incentivise investment. Profits are not an enemy of Conservatives. Profits mean more investment. Profits mean more research. Profits mean more jobs.” She is right, but she has missed the point.
Unexpected profits may or may not be invested wisely, but there is a respectable free-market argument for taxing them more heavily: they are the product of luck, not hard work or innovation. And there is a respectable one-nation argument for spending the proceeds on the mitigation of poverty.
She may be representative of a small minority among Conservative MPs who fail to understand why they won the last election and how they might win the next. John McTernan, Tony Blair’s former political secretary, was scathing about these MPs, many of whom first won their seats in 2019, when he talked to students at King’s College London recently: “Almost every MP in the red wall is what we call in politics a lottery winner – somebody selected by the party in the strong anticipation that that person will never go anywhere near parliament, and then when you win a landslide, you go, ‘What? We should have vetted our MPs much further down the line.’ Those people are pushing right-wing policies which are not in their own interests.”
His prescription is simple: “Johnson’s strength was that he understood the public wanted more public spending. If I was advising the Tories now I would say: ‘You won Labour voters; give them Labour policies.’”
It is the lesson that Blair learnt from Bill Clinton: always stay focused on the people who voted for your party for the first time. The Conservatives would be in a better position if McTernan, rather than Canzini, were advising them. He would at least give the government the one thing it lacks at the moment: a clear sense of direction.
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Currently, pockets of Tory MPs want to cut taxes, impose a windfall tax, raise benefits, dish out more help with energy bills (including cancelling the loan element of the chancellor’s “buy now pay later” scheme), or all four. Meanwhile, the chancellor went to the CBI this week with a speech so confused it had to be changed at the last minute, in which he promised to cut taxes on business, which had to be clarified later to say he did not mean he was retreating from the huge increase in corporation tax, from 19 to 25 per cent, already announced for next year.
I suspect that Boris Johnson will shortly rediscover the advantage of not believing in anything. He will realise that the objections to a windfall tax are weak, and that the benefits of adopting a popular policy are worth more than mistaken definitions of Conservatism.
If Johnson is a worm, he will discover which way is up. He won Labour voters. He will give them Labour policies.