We know that Boris Johnson’s days in Number 10 are numbered now. We can’t be sure how many there still are. That his tenure will end well before the time of the next election is, however, seemingly certain. But my question is, so what? What then for the Tories, and us.
The Conservative Party is often described as the most successful party in democratic politics in the world. And it is true, it has dominated UK politics for longer than anyone now alive, and long before that.
But, what if Johnson goes? What happens then to a Party whose main reason for being has been to win power in the interests of a select part of society? Can it still do that?
For those who want a short answer, my suggestion is that it is in deep trouble now. Its centre cannot hold because it is not clear that it still has one that functions. Its left has also gone, and the right is riven by disagreement.
The coalition within the party is failing
The Tories are in disarray. Like all successful political parties in UK first past the post politics they have been a messy coalition. My suggestion is that the disarray is because the coalition within the party is failing.
They have represented the established church, the aristocracy, trade, the farmer and, by association, rural communities, the armed forces, the Unionist as opposed to the nationalist, empire, colonialism, monarchy, and a low tax, low regulation, family-orientated, chaste libertarianism.
That there are obvious stresses of value within the Tory coalition has always been obvious. From the moral purist to the chancer, from the privileged to trade, from the rural poor to the factory owner, the conflicts are clear. But they managed them, somehow.
Difference is no longer tolerated
The difference is that they no longer do so. They could so long as difference was tolerated. And now it is not. Johnson killed tolerance when he expelled approximately 20 Remain-supporting MPs in 2019. The coalition ended that day. So did the Party.
To secure success the Tories did not just compromise with each other but had embraced something more powerful, which was profound managerialism. There might have been a charismatic frontage, but worldly experience filled government ranks.
The likes of Dominic Grieve and David Gauke represented that wing. So, in the past did the likes of Michael Heseltine, Ken Clarke and Justine Greening. They brought real world skills to their jobs that meant the extreme views of some Tories was balanced by delivery.
This element within the party has now been repelled and expelled. Only the extremities and unskilled are left. Only one election has been fought by this new version on that basis. It won more convincingly than it had for decades. But we now know that was chance.
The chance was Boris Johnson.
Johnson is a profoundly flawed character. A liar, who is unable to recognise or respect boundaries whether personal or otherwise, he combined all those flaws with what seemed like a wit and charm that hid his political vacuity.
Amongst his many flaws Johnson does not know who, or what, or why he stands for anything, bar himself. Brexit was evidence of that. Pro-Brexit simply for reasons of self-promotion, he delivered a deal he very obviously did not comprehend. He likely did not read it.
The same hollowness is apparent in all he promotes. Levelling up does not exist as a policy. Covid policy has been almost non-existent, bar three word slogans. Vaccination happened despite rather than because of him. And there is nothing else.
Nor is there anyone else. Johnson sacked those who disagreed with him, and those who challenged him, such as Jeremy Hunt, are on the backbenches. The cabinet comprises people who in earlier generations would have struggled to get a junior post, so bad are they.
Heirs apparent? There are none…
As to heirs apparent, there are really none. Sunak does not tick Tory boxes. His dedication to austerity is too Osborne-like to appeal to a party that rejected Cameron. Truss is hidden away because every time she tries to speak it is apparent she is a random word generator.
And Hunt was a disaster as health secretary, failing to put in place the measures required to manage a predicted pandemic.
In the absence of alternative people to coalesce around there is only dogma, something the grand Tory compromises of old that sustained it in office always sought to avoid. Being a Tory was enough in those days, asking why was not popular, and answers were not forthcoming.
But now dogma rules. English nationalism is strong. So too is the libertarianism of Ayn Rand. It is, however, coupled with a distaste for democratic freedom of which Stalin would have been proud.
Business either does, or does not matter, depending on who you ask, but whatever the belief in business is it comes straight from an economics textbook and has little to do with the real world of 2022.
Morality is a commodity, but of decidedly uncertain value. As Groucho Marx would have it, if you do not like those on offer there are always some more to be had.
Rural life is viewed through the window of a National Trust tearoom through which questions may not be asked.
The colonies still exist, except they are now called Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The indifference to those who live in those three countries is staggering.
Racism is a threat to Tories, not something to be opposed.
LGBTQ rights fit into the same mould, because ‘normality’ is prioritised in a way where nothing that is normal is considered to be so.
‘The other’, whether it be the EU, the migrant already here or the refugee seeking a home, has a role only to the extent that they can be weaponised as a threat.
Drugs require a law to be declared upon them, when most taking them probably come from positions of privilege and would often vote Tory.
The church is merely of use as a theatre for state pageants. It must otherwise be quiet.
A party of frightened people
All this being noted, what does it suggest? That the current Tory party is made up of very frightened people who neither know what they are frightened of or why.
What is more, the Tories have no clue as to what to do about the threats that they think they perceive. So, they sloganise because their fear otherwise defies description.
The difficulty in all that is that the dogmas on display proliferate and the only people capable of coalescing around a view are those with the most paranoid worldview. They are now readily identifiable on the far-right of the party.
The one characteristic they have is their willingness to blame everyone and everything for all that is wrong. The result is that everything from a face mask onwards represents a battle to be fought by them, but why even they do not really know. All they need are enemies.
The difficulty for these people with little attachment to reality is that a majority of their supposed colleagues can see how absurd they are, and will not support them. But, those other MPs also have nothing to offer.
The rump of the Tory party, the supposedly moderate MPs who reject the far-right posturing of one third of their colleagues, are MPs without either knowing why they are Tories, as is normal in their party, and without the real-world skills to make up for that absence of insight.
Where do they go and what do they do?
Where do the Tories go when faced with this schism between those living in fear of the twenty first century and those who have nothing to offer it in terms of ability to govern?
The only thing that is likely is that Tory MPs will not agree with each other. Those who are crazy will not countenance an engagement with reality. The majority do not know how to promote anything realistic.
That leaves no room for compromise, because the two remaining wings of the Tory party (those with competence having been expelled) have nothing to bring to a negotiating table that the other will consider, even if they could find a table to sit around, so incompetent are they.
Johnson has gutted the Party
Removing Johnson is not an answer in that case. To get elected Johnson gutted the Tories. What he cut out was the ability to compromise that made it function. As is apparent, because Covid has been as vexatious for him as Brexit was for May, that capacity has gone.
But with it has gone the ability to govern. Whoever follows Johnson, and someone surely will, is unlikely to be any more successful than Johnson was.
The modern Tory party might have been created by Johnson but it was not made in his image. All he did was provide it with a fascia that delivered a single electoral success. Underneath, however, he has left it deeply wounded.
The church has gone. The Unionist realises the game is up. The English nationalist is a minority. The aristocracy is history. Trade is alienated. Rural England has been sold short by Brexit. The armed forces hate being used as they are.
There are just the dogmatists and the bewildered left. And they can agree on nothing, except the need to generate fear itself. Even that is being seen through now as the stories they have told are not the ones they have been willing to live by. The fear-mongers have been rumbled.
Will they survive?
Can I see the Tories surviving this? In the short term, no. Of course I cannot. In the longer term might they rebuild? The evidence is that they have always done so before, although this time the rifts are very deep.
What happens in the meantime? A broken Union. A broken democracy. And a broken England, friendless inside and outside its own Union, let alone the EU, has a mountain to climb. Can our politics do what the Tories can’t and find the compromises required to start again?
I doubt this is within the reach of Labour alone. It too is tribal, divided and internally divided. A bigger purpose is required. I am not confident that Labour is the singular alternative in the place that we are.
Is there a bigger narrative that can be built? I have to hope so. The negotiating table has to be at the heart of our hopes now. Who will turn up and what will they agree upon? Survival, with dignity I hope. That’s the agenda we need. We are a long way from it but I can hope.
Hope is all we have right now when the Tories have created am unimaginable mess. And amongst the hopes must be one that people will not forget this moment, not for a very long time to come.
This article first appeared in my blog.
I will be on the panel for West Country Voices’ Zoom debate on Democracy in Danger, Thursday 20 January at 8pm. You can book your free ticket by clicking on the link here.