Johnson – could he do a Thatcher?

Dave Kellaway finds Boris Johnson ignoring the supply crisis and enveloping the Tory faithful in optimism at the Conservative Party conference.

Some mainstream media commentators think that Johnson is a bit of a lightweight and gets bored with the details of government. They think if things go pear-shaped he might jump ship and enjoy making lots of money. On the other hand, it is reported by people supposedly close to him that he is keen to match Thatcher’s record.  Who knows for sure? As a young man at Eton, with all the sense of entitlement that gives you, he famously declared he wanted to be the ‘king of the world’.  Talk by the Tory house journal, the Spectator that there was going to be trouble from Tory ‘rebels’ in the ‘red wall’ seats have failed to add up to much. His recent reshuffle consolidated his support and the Cabinet is united and compact. 

Watching his speech at the Tory conference he appears to be the lord of all he surveys. 

However, in the world outside the conference hall, Johnson is presiding over:

  • a twenty pound cut to Universal Credit coming on the day of his speech
  •  soaring energy prices
  • the petrol supply crisis,
  • the looming tax rises
  • some empty supermarket shelves
  • a systemic government failure to deal with violence against women
  • many unresolved Brexit problems such as the Irish border or the restrictions on smooth trade
  • an upcoming Covid inquiry that could well highlight his failures
  • serious concerns expressed by his business friends in the CBI, FSB (Federation of Small Business) the Insitute of Economic Affairs and the Adam Smith institute about his economic strategy

Nevertheless, if you look at the polls the Tories were 4 points ahead of Labour even after the publicity given to Starmer’s speech. According to a YouGov poll, he is well ahead of Starmer in personal ratings. Corbyn is also in front of Starmer in this poll. Johnson may even extend his lead following his conference speech. How can we explain it?

Johnson reframes the crises as a means to further his distinctive post-Brexit project.

Basically, Johnson is still keeping together the solid social bloc who voted Brexit. Given the undemocratic first ‘past the post’ system, all he needs to do with a divided opposition is to keep his core vote of 40%-45% to have a good chance of continuing in office. Further changes to the number of constituencies that are unfavourable to Labour and disenfranchising poorer and ethnic voters through the new ID card voting system, will further consolidate his position.

As Rafael Behr points out in his Guardian article:

In other words, supply-chain disruption, queues for petrol and empty supermarket shelves are the birth pangs of a post-Brexit order; not so much a crisis as a catharsis. The discomfort will pass in due course, leaving the nation purged of its addiction to the foul and unpatriotic habits of commerce that held sway before January 2020. (…)Michael Gove went so far as to describe blights of inequality and poverty pay as a function of the “old EU model” that voters had roundly rejected. (…)public opinion, or at least the chunk of it that wanted Brexit and is feeling no great pang of buyer’s remorse, nor much magnetic pull to Labour. In such conditions, riding out the storm with the usual tricks of bravado and bonhomie might be as good a plan as any.

So Johnson reframes the crises as a means to further his distinctive post-Brexit project. All Tories are repeating the slogan of a transition to a high wage, high skill economy from the supposedly EU imposed low wage, low skill one. No matter that the statistics on wage growth are totally distorted by the pandemic and the decline in the number of low paid jobs. They can point to the £1000 starting bonuses for Tesco drivers or the double-digit increases some workers are achieving at the moment. Remember all the times we heard Brexit voters saying that they did not care a hoot about all the dire economic consequences of leaving the EU raised by the Remainers? They were solely concerned by their sense of identity and a myth of taking back control. 

Johnson may have many faults and indeed lies through his teeth most of the time, but he has a pretty good electoral nose. You don’t win in London, then the EU Referendum, and after that a general election without some political acumen. At the same time, he crushed his establishment opposition in the Tory party

He even sounds more radical and insurgent against the establishment than Starmer. His project will be disastrous for working people but it is at least pitching enthusiastically as a different way forward. It is no good his opponents going on about ten years or more of Tory austerity and misrule because he disowns the party of Cameron, Osborne and May. Despite voting for austerity the word never passes his mouth now. Many voters must also perceive it as the Johnson party – the one that absorbed the millions of voters who voted for the UKIP/Brexit party of Farage.

It is no good his opponents going on about ten years or more of Tory austerity and misrule because he disowns the party of Cameron, Osborne and May.

In his speech, Johnson mentioned workers and higher wages more than Starmer.  In fact, his proposed rise in the living wage will only come in around £20 a week less than what Labour is currently proposing. While Starmer went on and on about how prudent Labour would be on public finances Johnson tossed out costly new initiatives like confetti – a new northern Crossrail, free ports, new housing and so on. 

Starmer waxed lyrical about following the rules and setting Labour against the radical changes of the Corbyn project. Above all, he wanted to appear like the sensible bank manager.  Johnson portrays himself as breaking up all the rules of the pre-Brexit economy. Optimism oozed from his speech and that is what voters and his base like to hear. He also benefits from the end of the long darkness of the pandemic. 

Johnson was able to communicate the confidence and solidity of his position even in the way he spoke to the hall. Almost as though he was regaling friends in the saloon bar he ad-libbed, cracked jobs and appeared totally relaxed. By contrast, Starmer looked over-rehearsed and stiff. Johnson was able to riff with his audience by calling out and getting a response. Starmer even had to practice his reply to the hecklers.

Unlike the recent Labour Leaders speech, Johnson actually mentions capitalism – Starmer prefers the rather meaningless ‘strong economy’ to which he wants a Labour government to partner in innovation and modernisation. The Tory leader of course is defending capitalism as the change agent, falsely claiming that free enterprise rather than the state came up with the vaccines. Here he omits the role of the state-financed University of Oxford or other state grants to the drugs companies. He lied about the superiority of the British vaccine roll out to the EU one. Europe has actually caught up and gone past Britain and paid a lot less for the vaccines. But no matter for Johnson, his lies still construct more of a narrative than Starmer. At least you know clearly which side Johnson is on with his defence of capitalism, with Starmer it is all euphemism and vague wish fulfilment.

Johnson is always able to trump Starmer and Labour when it comes to wrapping oneself in the union jack. He was able to combine his eulogy with a Churchillian British spirit and an attack on progressive ideas and culture. Again lies and exaggeration were skilfully employed – schools in Islington were apparently running races where no one was allowed to win. North London was the bogey word driving this audience into a frenzy. I have taught in that borough and I have never heard of this case, certainly not in secondary schools and if it happened it would have been quite rare even in primary education. He also gave the impression that Labour was against the anti-China Aukus coalition. The conference might have passed a critical motion but both Starmer and Nandy are on record as supporting it. Aided by the media it is quite easy for Johnson and the Tories to make gains with the culture war propaganda, particularly if Starmer capitulates on many of the issues.

According to the press reports, people were queuing up from 6.30 am to see Johnson speak and they had to turn people away. Starmer’s people had to close down the balcony and bus in day visitors to fill the hall. It may be difficult for the people on the left to accept, but the failure of the left to build a progressive alternative to Johnson’s Brexit had meant that he has been gifted a solid new base of support. That Labour is finding it difficult to win back support by steering back to a Blairist centre, is an indication of the shift in English politics.

Does this all mean that Johnson can really emulate Thatcher? Certainly, he appears to be getting through Parliament the cut to Universal Credit without a lot of opposition. He is hoping that the rise in wages for some workers will soften the sting of the gas price rises and the National Insurance increase. On the latter, the Tories have quite cleverly tied the NIC increase into supporting the NHS, which the public likes and that hits them in the pocket next year anyway. The gas price problem and the supply issues are more dangerous for him.  Without any elections on the horizon, he is hoping that they can be ridden out. 

As long as the main opposition party is obsessed with crushing the left-wing remaining inside Labour and is keen to make itself look respectable it makes building that opposition in the streets and workplaces more difficult.

As long as the main opposition party is obsessed with crushing the left-wing remaining inside Labour and is keen to make itself look respectable it makes building that opposition in the streets and workplaces more difficult. It will be up to the left of the movement to do as much as we can to challenge the Tories.  Priti Patel’s call to imprison the Insulate Uk protesters and other measures limiting our democratic rights, like the Police crackdown bill, shows the response we can expect from this government.  Even if they do not fear much from Starmer they are aware that protest can grow from other sources.  Could labour shortages in some sectors given working people the confidence to organise for better wages?  Could a personality like Marcus Rashford spark something?  Whatever happens, the left opposition to Starmer inside and outside the Labour Party needs to get better organised to make a bigger impact.

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.

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