Of Peter Kellner
Let’s turn to the future of British politics for a moment. But first a story.
It comes from John Barry, a colleague of mine at the Sunday Times when I started in journalism. John was one of the paper’s most skilled investigative reporters. In the early 1970s, he exposed how Greek colonels used torture to maintain their tyranny. In the course of this story, John met James Fawcett, a British judge at the European Commission of Human Rights.
The two men became friends. A few years later, over a meal, they discussed their families. Fawcett surprised John with the vehemence of one of his rants. It was for his grandson, then 12-13 years old: ugly little shit.”
His grandson was Boris Johnson. No one who has followed Johnson’s career will be surprised by this line, although Fawcett felt comfortable enough to make it about a member of his own family. It predates by four or five years the previous earlier verdict on Johnson’s character – his school report said he “honestly thinks it rude of us not to regard him as an exception, one who should be free from the web of obligations which binds all the others”.
With days to go before Johnson steps down as prime minister, some may feel that discussing these issues is no longer relevant. That would be wrong. That’s because one of the deepest divisions in public opinion is how people view the outgoing prime minister – and one of the hardest decisions his successor has to make is how to handle that division.
On one side of this divide are the 160,000 Conservative members, who are now voting for the next leader. The latest YouGov survey found that most of them believe the party was wrong to force Johnson to stand down and that if he could stand in the current election, he would defeat both candidates, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak. Johnson’s name is heard excitedly whenever his tenure is mentioned at election meetings of party members.
On the other hand, it is the general public. Most voters can’t stand Johnson anymore. According to the latest Opinium poll, only 26% approve of his performance as prime minister. In the last election, 14 million people voted for the Conservatives. Some 4 million say they would not vote again – and Johnson’s track record, both in terms of his policies and his deeply flawed personality, explains why so many are leaving the party.
If Truss, the near-certain winner of the current process, wants to retain her party’s support, she will continue to honor her predecessor. however, to lead the party to victory in the next general election, it needs to win back more than 4 million voters who have left the party – and Johnson’s open endorsements won’t help.
Solving this dilemma will not be Tras’ only problem. The leadership race was spectacularly “bitter”. Sunakl has repeatedly attacked the Trust for its economic program as unworkable. He has accused her that her policies would put public finances at serious risk, with tax cuts the country cannot afford. In this way and others, the race has revealed fissures that the Conservative party will struggle to close.
Two illustrative examples of the poison that fills these cracks were recently given by the Times of the same day. Michael Gove, who has served in the cabinets of all three Conservative prime ministers since 2010, accused Truss of “taking a holiday from reality” with her plans for the economy, while Matthew Parris, a former Conservative MP and commentator who manages to be both sharp and respected, called her “a bit weird, curiously shallow and potentially dangerous”. His view on her premiership: “she’s not going to make it.”
It is often said in difficult times like this, that divided parties cannot win elections. This is true – up to a point. A more accurate statement is that unresolved divisions lead to defeat. Divisions cannot always be avoided. The test is not whether leaders can avoid battles, but whether they can win them.
With that in mind, which previous female Conservative leader will Truss look like as she decides how to deal with issues of Johnson’s reputation and disagreements over how to manage Britain’s current economic crisis? Margaret Thatcher, who successfully imposed their will on her fragmented party in the early 1980s, or Theresa May, who was ousted three years ago because she failed to do so?
Truss just wishes she could succeed Thatcher, not May. But to do that she will first have to fade Johnson into black darkness, as Thatcher did with her predecessor Edward Heath. Second, Tras should forget about its economic strategy. Thatcher was obsessed with public finances. The idea of unfunded tax cuts scared her.
Third, Truss will need to copy Thatcher’s willingness to defend her views “live” on television – and the tougher her interlocutor, the better. In the current leadership race, Truss has refused to participate in two lengthy prime-time television interviews, which Sunak willingly participated in. It has also refused to submit its budget and spending plans to the government’s scrutiny of official forecasts, the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR). The reason is clear. He fears the OBR would say what reputable independent analysts such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have said “the numbers don’t add up”.
Of course, until a politician gets to the top, we can’t be sure what they will do when they get there. Tras’ career is full of twists and turns. As a student she was a Liberal who wanted to get rid of the monarchy. Six years ago, he passionately supported the UK staying in the EU.
Perhaps she will be ready to change her mind as prime minister as she did in her journey to the top. Rejecting economic plans that will not work may be Britain’s greatest chance for a better future.
You can see the text here: https://carnegieeurope.eu/strategiceurope/87753