For all the sound and fury over ‘partygate’, I believe the Conservative Party faces far more serious problems. Is it to be a Social Democratic Party successor to Tony Blair’s New Labour? Or will it return to being a proper right-of-centre political organisation which Margaret Thatcher would recognise? I have no idea if these are the sorts of questions which keep Boris Johnson up at night, but they certainly should.
There is no disputing that ‘partygate’ is a scandal. The idea that the people who introduced draconian lockdown rules and then breached them on the very premises where they were conceived – in Downing Street – has sparked fury among millions of people who obeyed those rules at huge personal cost.
What I find worse, however, are Boris Johnson’s contortions as he avoids answering the questions. ‘Partygate’ has exposed him as a leader who is not in control of Number Ten; as a man with little authority; and, in the eyes of many, as a serial liar.
These are potentially disastrous charges for any prime minister to face, but it is just possible that Johnson will survive. After all, voters and Tory MPs have known for a long time that his approach to life is chaotic. What is more hazardous for him are the betrayals of policies that traditional Conservative voters, and new Tory voters in Red Wall seats, hold dear: these include illegal immigration, Britain’s relationship with Communist China, and high taxation.
For years, Johnson has appeared to present himself as a small state, free market Eurosceptic. Yet the truth is somewhat different. He is, and always has been, a metropolitan Liberal. He is as much a member of the elite as is Tony Blair. Witness Johnson’s total commitment to net zero.
This key plank of his premiership is very popular in central London. It is reviled elsewhere. Likewise, his laissez-faire attitude to illegal immigration. The wealthy burghers of Notting Hill and Islington appear to have no strong feelings about the Channel crisis and Johnson was never bothered by illegal immigration when he was Mayor of London.
Indeed, he used to talk about amnesties. But in those parts of the country where illegal immigrants are housed and fed at taxpayers’ expense, the public is genuinely worried about where this situation will end up and what effect it will have on their communities. They feel abandoned.
On China, Johnson is a self-confessed Sinophile, and the recent appointment of Guto Harri as his spin doctor is very revealing. Harri was an ardent Remainer who worked for the BBC for 18 years. He has also worked in a senior post for a lobbying firm called Hawthorn, which counted the controversial Chinese technology giant Huawei among its clients.
Incidentally, in 2021, Harri also worked as a presenter for GB News. He once chose to take the knee on air, which led to a boycott by viewers. It is no wonder he and Johnson get on as well now as they did when Harri worked for Johnson in City Hall. But are his priorities really the same as those with a traditional outlook on life?
Some people believe that Johnson’s potential successor is based in offices at Number 11 Downing Street. Perhaps they need to think again. As Chancellor, Rishi Sunak has point-blank refused to honour the Brexit promise to cut the 5 per cent VAT rate on fuel. More seriously, he has not lifted a finger to remove or simplify thousands of burdensome EU rules.
A former Goldman Sachs banker, he appears to have little, if any, understanding of how small businesses work and what sort of strains they face every day. And Sunak’s energy policy has quite rightly led to prominent Conservative MPs like Steve Baker asking whether the Tories are pursuing socialist policies.
Furthermore, Brexit may look like it has been completed, but it has not been. As a pro-Brexit Chancellor, Sunak should feel wretched about that. It doesn’t end there. In April, Sunak will introduce a National Insurance hike. This tax increase will, I believe, sink Sunak’s popularity. And rightly so.
When all is said and done, Britain, under Boris Johnson, has drifted back to the era of David Cameron’s coalition government, when social democracy ruled the day. What is remarkable is that this has happened when Johnson has an 80-seat majority. Nobody who voted Conservative in 2019 voted for a failure to curb illegal immigration, higher taxes and continuing EU red tape. But this is what they got.
Many Conservative MPs are worried about putting in letters of no-confidence to Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, because they fear the unknown. They have no idea what will come next. In a sense, they have a point. But they should take courage. For, when it happens, the next Conservative leadership contest may well be their last chance to save the party.
A decade or so ago, the Tories were forced onto the Brexit agenda by the UKIP insurgency and some very determined backbench Conservative MPs. If Johnson stays in post, Reform UK or another party will easily reach the levels that UKIP did. This time, however, the stakes are higher.
There will be no referendum and no other means of buying them off. And because there is no chance of a right-of-centre insurgent party ever trusting the Conservatives again, the result of all of this could be that the Conservatives lose a huge number of seats at the next election. If they continue on their current course, they deserve to do so.
It is not just the Prime Minister’s reputation that is going down the pan, it is the Conservative Party’s reputation, too. MPs need to realise that if they stick with Johnson, they will lose their seats, and the differences between their party and Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour Party will become even narrower. The Tories appear to be completely out of touch. A new leader who is a genuine Conservative is urgently required. Otherwise, almost 200 years after its foundation, the Conservative Party could be doomed.