Weak and nasty” has been a good description of all Tory governments since the fall of Margaret Thatcher nearly 30 years ago. None fit this description better than Boris Johnson’s administration.
This may seem surprising. After all, Johnson used the Brexit impasse to seize the premiership, purge the Tory Party of its pro-European wing, and win an 80-seat parliamentary majority.
In other circumstances—for example, the comparatively balmy economic weather Tony Blair’s governments enjoyed—this might be enough.
But times are much harsher now. Johnson has to deal with two huge challenges.
The first is how to negotiate the terms of Britain’s future trade relationship with the European Union (EU). The second is the Covid-19 pandemic.
The fact that he’s struggling with both isn’t simply a matter of personal incompetence, though it plays a part.
The deeper problem is the ideological incoherence of the government. It is caught between traditional Thatcherism with its fetish of the “free market” and, what an interesting article in the Financial Times newspaper last month called, the “pivot to sovereignty”.
The Brexiteer wing of the Tory Party has tended to be ultra neoliberals who denounce the EU as a protectionist bloc blocking Britain’s access to the world market.
Hence the rhetoric after the 2016 Brexit referendum about “global Britain” and the largely fruitless hunt for free-trade agreements. This project has been stillborn.
The harsh reality is that the world economy is dominated by three huge, competing, and increasingly antagonistic trade blocs— the US, the EU, and China.
So the government has drifted towards greater state intervention in the economy. One of the sticking points in the negotiations with the EU is Britain’s insistence on providing state aid for industry.
This is apparently because Johnson’s chief adviser Dominic Cummings wants it to promote new hi-tech firms.
But the pandemic has shown that the Tories haven’t really broken with Thatcherism. It requires the determined application of a high level of state control—to reduce the circulation of the virus, to support workers and businesses during the shutdowns.
Johnson has been completely unable to deliver any of this. In the name of “freedom” the Tories slept through the onset of the pandemic, locked down too late, opened up again too early, and have responded to the second wave in a half-hearted and incoherent way. The resulting shambles is evident to all.
The three-tier system was adopted, against the scientists’ advice, by a divided cabinet. Chancellor Rishi Sunak led the opposition to a proper lockdown that might break the revival of the pandemic.
Johnson fears him as a potential challenger for the Tory leadership. And he can’t rely on his 80-seat majority.
Apparently Number 10 hoped that Keir Starmer’s call for a short “circuit-breaker” national lockdown might unite the Tory party behind him. Instead, 42 Tory backbenchers voted last week against tighter restrictions.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s negligence has allowed Covid-19 to flare up in the north of England, in precisely the ex-industrial areas, once Labour’s “red wall” seats, which swung Tory last December.
As Lynsey Hanley put it in the Financial Times, “This is the real ‘red wall’—a continuous band of high coronavirus rates running from Liverpool in the west to Newcastle in the east. What unites ‘the north’ in this sense, and what this ‘red wall’ highlights, is the nature of working poverty.”
The government’s ineptitude has even created an alliance of northern Tory MPs with the Labour mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham to oppose putting the region under the strictest restrictions.
The two crises interact. Johnson almost certainly still wants to cut a trade deal with the EU. His ultimatum last Friday, demanding “a fundamental change of approach” from the EU, was a widely expected ploy.
But the EU believes it has the upper hand. And the pressure Johnson is under over the pandemic reduces his room for manoeuvre. This is a game of chicken where both sides may overplay their hands.