What is Johnsonism? Following Rishi Sunak’s Budget, plenty of commentators felt they knew. The Chancellor had decided to use an unexpected revenue windfall, not to reverse tax increases or pay down debt, but to increase government spending across a range of departments. This apparently indicated that the Tories under Johnson had decisively shifted to being a high-tax, high-spend party, and in doing so had either completely betrayed the principles of conservatism or stolen Labour’s clothes.
A report published by think tank UK in a Changing Europe in June 2020, looking at the views of the two main party’s MPs and their voters, suggests a different picture. While Labour MPs and activists are broadly aligned with Labour voters in their economic views, Tory MPs are much more economically right-wing than the average 2019 Tory voter. The uncertain reception that the “big state” elements of the Budget received from Conservative MPs and activists speaks volumes. The leftwards shift by the government does not reflect a profound ideological change within the party – what it does reflect is an acknowledgement that the median British voter leans left on economics and that this is roughly where the Conservatives need to be to win elections.
The strength of Johnsonism is that, in its elusive nature, it can respond to circumstances. And whilst this has historiacllly allowed Johnson to say one thing and do another, the chaotic end result is increasingly acrimonious tussles between different wings of the Tory party. Some sense of this chaos is percolating through to voters and polls have started showing that Labour is now more trusted than the government to deal with a range of issues, from Brexit through to crime. But crucially the Tories still remain ahead on economic competence. And for many 2019 Tory voters, combined with the leftward tilt of Tory spending, this is currently enough to keep them voting for the government.
Moreover, all the ducking and weaving involved makes Johnsonism a hard target for an Opposition to attack – in some ways it is reminiscent of the problems that the Tory Opposition had in trying to pin down Tony Blair’s governments. Yet New Labour was fundamentally different. For better or for worse, Blair believed that the “Third Way” was not just electorally popular but was the right thing for the country. It was part of a wider strategy and vision to make Britain a better place.
Johnsonism, on the other hand, is allergic to strategy. Hence the choice of National Insurance as the vehicle to raise taxes – presumably selected because it was assumed to be politically palatable, without any thought to whether it was fair. It does not seem to occur to the Chancellor to use the Treasury as an engine of genuine redistribution (as it was under Gordon Brown) or to generate the huge investments needed to properly tackle climate change (as it would be under Rachel Reeves). The departmental spending increases announced in the Budget are sticking plasters on a structure that’s slowly crumbling; it keeps public services functioning but there is no ambition for these services to become transformational for ordinary people’s lives as they had been under a Labour government. Merely returning education spending to the same level it was at 11 years ago, for example, is hardly an adequate response to the deep problems with productivity and skills we face in the UK.
Meanwhile, the enduring Tory reputation for economic competence may soon be under threat. Johnson’s claim that the UK is being converted into a high-wage economy now looks threadbare given that the recent increase in inflation will see workers’ real wages fall. The government’s lack of Brexit policy is only exacerbating underlying economic problems (it is telling that a third of Leave voters now think Brexit is going badly). The recent scandals around corruption and second jobs for MPs are leading many voters to doubt whether the Tories really are on their side. Recent weeks have also seen the Tories roll back promises on levelling up in the North and on the long-promised solution for social care.
And when things start going wrong, a lack of vision and purpose becomes highly problematic; the only reason for voters to endure hardship is if they believe it to be part of a journey towards something better (this was the narrative that Cameron and Osborne successfully sold the public on austerity). But Johnson’s inane boosterism promised the country gain without pain, and if economic hardship starts to bite over the next few months, voters will be entitled to ask why they are suffering when they were assured they would not have to.
All this offers Labour the chance to present a vision of the Britain where things aren’t “just about OK”. Of course, it can be hard for an Opposition to get its vision across to a wide audience, particularly given that nearly the whole period of Keir Starmer’s leadership has been dominated by the Covid crisis. For example, at conference, Rachel Reeves announced that Labour would undertake huge, game-changing investments in infrastructure to combat climate change, but this did not seem to register as much with a commentariat more interested in dissecting Labour divisions. And the fact that the Tory government can (accurately) claim to be spending record amounts on public services does make it harder for Labour to differentiate itself while still coming across as being trustworthy with the nation’s finances.
But questions such as how money can be raised to pay for public services fairly, how that revenue is distributed, what our country will look like after having invested thoughtfully, strategically and boldly in skills and education, green infrastructure, preventative health care and better employment, are still ones where Labour can provide far better answers than the government. Johnsonism has been a hard target for Labour to directly attack, but there are now signs that it is struggling as it fails to live up to its promises. The next few months provide Labour with its best opportunity since the General Election to present Britain with a better way forward than Johnson’s Tories will ever be able to offer them.