What is the correct response to a law-breaking prime minister, who feigns contrition in public but, in private, reportedly declares of the original offence: “I’d do it again”; who in a formal confidence vote, is opposed by 41 per cent of his own MPs; who, through sheer force of obstinacy and narcissism, is clearly determined to cling to power at almost any cost; whose reckless conduct has already inflicted unconscionable damage upon trust in the very fabric of our democracy?
How, in such fraught times, to right the ship of state? The answer, of course, is to cut taxes.
Hold on a second. Rewind the tape. “Cut taxes”? How is reducing the (undoubtedly heavy) tax burden the correct response to a crisis of personal delusion at the very top, the fragmentation of the governing party, and the consequent institutional bedlam?
This non sequitur flows from what the philosopher Gilbert Ryle would have called a “category mistake”. It is like saying that the answer to a burst pipe is a salsa lesson; or that the way to cure a sprained ankle is to install better wifi.
Yet this is precisely how the Conservative Party has been behaving since last Monday evening when Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 Committee, announced that 211 Tory MPs had voted in support of Boris Johnson and 148 against. It was a disastrous result for the PM: reflecting a collapse in his authority, a high level of disapproval (within his own party) of his conduct and character, and a growing recognition that Partygate has wrecked his already diminished superpower, which has always been a deeply personal relationship with the voters and a capacity to win them over, transcending party politics.
The game is indisputably up, at least according to any rational criteria: every previous prime minister of the modern era, following such a humiliation, would already have departed Number 10 (yes, even Edward Heath). Instead, Johnson brandished the sword of post-truth and the trusty shield of alternative facts and hailed “a convincing result, a decisive result – and what it means is that as a government we can move on and focus on the stuff that I think really matters to people.”
And what might that “stuff” be, prime minister? In his appeal to Conservative MPs before the vote, Johnson had already promised his tribe some old-time religion. “Now is precisely the moment,” he said, “to recognise that sometimes government can’t do everything and that it is time to end the learned helplessness of Covid and to drive a Conservative programme of reform and change and cutting costs.” His mission, he continued, was to “to drive supply-side reform on Conservative principles and to cut taxes”. And again: “We can get this country through a difficult time and, by supply-side reform and bearing down on taxation, we can unleash the potential of this country.”
Short of dressing up as Marty McFly and clambering into a DeLorean time machine, the PM could not have been more clear about his readiness to whisk the party back to its Thatcherite heyday. He only mentioned “levelling up” once, en passant. He did not even dwell upon Brexit.
Instead, his plan was to take his anxious and, in many cases, furious colleagues back to their collective happy place – to, for example, Nigel Lawson’s 1988 Budget, which abolished all income tax rates above 40 per cent and lowered the basic rate by two per cent to 25 per cent.
Instead of confronting head-on the crisis of leadership and lawbreaking into which he has personally plunged the government, and explaining what he now proposed to do to clean up his own act and make amends for what has happened, he simply changed the record and played his party a series of dancefloor golden oldies. Precisely when adult reflection and considered statesmanship were most needed, he infantilised proceedings.
In context, the promise of “tax cuts” had little to do with fiscal policy (or policy of any sort). It was an emotional appeal to the party’s deepest instincts and a pledge to be true to them. Rather than acknowledge the scale of the dilemma he, and they, face, he pulled The House at Pooh Corner off the shelf and soothed them with the ideological equivalent of tales of the Hundred Acre Wood.
And – to an extent – it has worked. In the Daily Telegraph last week, the self-appointed conscience of the Tory Right, Lord Frost defined what he saw as the PM’s task in these terms: “First, urgently, stop the plane hitting the ground. Reverse tax increases and credibly commit to future cuts.”
On Wednesday, Sajid Javid, the health secretary, said that he would “like to see us do more on tax cuts”, adding over the weekend that Rishi Sunak’s planned reduction of the basic rate of income tax by 1p, slated for 2024, should, if possible, “be brought forward”. Writing in yesterday’s Sunday Telegraph, Tom Tugendhat, the chair of the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee and a declared leadership contender, warned against the belief that “we can have it all and tax and spend in a socialist nightmare.”
On Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, said that “lower tax is good” and – while taking care not to tread on the chancellor’s toes – did little to conceal his desire to put cuts at the heart of the government’s offer. Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale and Darwen and leader of the Northern Research Group of Tory backbenchers, warned of “political annihilation” if the PM did not focus remorselessly upon this agenda.
All of which is tosh. Of course Conservatives want tax cuts – and every Tory Budget includes, and will always include at least one headline-grabbing measure designed to satisfy that appetite. But, after the prodigious spending of the pandemic years, and the present economic pressures bearing down upon the government – and upon governments elsewhere – the notion that a fiesta of tax cuts is on the cards is pure tribal therapy, intended to make the Conservative Party feel good about itself and exude to the electorate a fresh sense of mission. Its seriousness as policy is negligible.
Nor, for that matter, do I believe that voters, desperately worried about the price of food and energy – and the lag between wage increases and inflation – are giving much thought to tax cuts. Naturally, nobody objects to the government taking less from their pay packet, or the assets they inherit, or the capital gains that they make. But – to the extent that there is a national conversation in June 2022 – tax cuts are not at its centre.
What one witnesses, in the wake of the confidence vote, is a prime minister willing to say and do literally anything to keep defenestration at bay. This opportunistic reflex has, of course, always been at the heart of Johnson’s personal and political conduct. He was happy to posture as socially liberal, pro-immigration and vigorously in favour of action on climate change to win two London mayoral elections.
To prevail in the Brexit referendum, in contrast, he was no less prepared to present himself as more or less the opposite kind of Conservative – and as prime minister he has been ruthless in his autocratic disregard for the rule of law and his readiness, in collaboration with Priti Patel, to take profoundly unethical action to keep the flow of migration at bay.
The government still hopes that the first flight of refugees being resettled to Rwanda will leave the tarmac and head to Kigali tomorrow, having overcome attempts in the courts, backed by the UNHCR, to thwart its departure by injunction, and ignored reports in the Times that Prince Charles is privately “appalled” by the whole initiative.
The policy is still under review in the courts, and, at the time of writing, legal challenges have already whittled down the number of asylum seekers on course for deportation to Rwanda from 37 to single figures. My firm impression is that Johnson and what remains of his inner circle are perfectly happy with the row: what they are after is a “wedge issue” that makes the government look tough and committed to a strong-arm border policy, and those who object to the plan resemble spineless bleeding hearts (including the heir to the throne).
And if the most vulnerable people in the world, those desperate enough to paddle over the Channel in makeshift dinghies with shovels for paddles suffer in the ensuing political melodrama – well, you can’t make an omelette without dehumanising the wretched of the Earth, can you?
Since the PM’s position became seriously imperilled in January, Number 10 has been committed to so-called “Operation Save Big Dog”, churning out policies, half-baked proposals and deliberate provocations intended to distract public and media attention from the essential fact of his political weakness.
No opportunity has been lost to attack the BBC, the civil service and left-wing lawyers. There have been briefings that ministers are willing to open more grammar schools. Imperial units are to return – because nothing helps more during a cost-of-living crisis than for households to be able to do their sums in farthings and florins.
There are rumblings about “gender ideology” (stand by for plenty of culture war operations in the second half of 2022). Plans to bring in “agency workers” to foil future rail strikes are being drawn up by the transport secretary, Grant Shapps – in homage to President Reagan’s legendary sacking of more than 11,000 striking US air traffic controllers in 1981. How such “outsourced” rail workers would be made ready to step in is far from clear. But clarity is not the point. All this is performative robustness. It is designed to nurture an impression, not solve a problem.
As ever when the government is in a tight spot, we are promised a “bonfire of EU rules”. And speaking of Brexit, this week will be overshadowed by the next perilous attempt to square the circle of the Northern Ireland Protocol. The government insists it will not threaten (as it has in the past) to break international law. But, then again, it promised to abide by its own Covid rules, didn’t it? Nothing, I am told, is off the table: the key is to score a political win over Brussels: again, at almost any cost.
In the background, too, there are rumblings about the government’s commitment to its net zero target (increasingly regarded, in the words of one pro-Johnson minister, a “bloody millstone”) and the desirability, in the midst of an energy price crisis, of drilling rather than dwelling too deeply upon the survival of the planet. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that the PM is already planning to scale back his plans to rewild the country.
In which context, bear in mind that it is only seven months since the UK hosted the Cop26 UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. There is political fickleness – common to all governments, however public-spirited – and then there is the complete lack of moral compass of which the Johnson regime is guilty.
Most ludicrous of all, the PM’s allies are seeding the idea that his travails are not self-inflicted at all, but the work of an ill-defined conspiracy of diehard Remainers, Blairites, BBC Trotskyites, the Whitehall “blob”, Rory Stewart, Luciana Berger and even Emily Maitlis. The Mail newspapers have oxygenated this paranoid fantasy enthusiastically, bringing a whiff of anglicised QAnon craziness to the UK media.
There are many people who would like to see Johnson lose power. There are plenty who believe Brexit was a big mistake. But the implication that last week’s confidence vote was somehow the work of a wicked cabal of powerful refuseniks is borderline hysterical. Do those who identify this imaginary menace really believe that Tony Blair snuck back into Number 10 and somehow forced Johnson to take a slice of cake, to attend parties and to encourage a culture of illegality in the workplace over which he presides? I think we should be told.
Senior officials complain that many ministers have not so much taken their eye off the ball as forgotten that the ball exists in the first place. Many cabinet members are running semi-public leadership campaigns. Whitehall is less the heart of government now than a village of factional headquarters, a fizzing network of countless WhatsApp groups, as the principal contenders for the crown wait for the balloon to go up.
Even now, there are voices of sanity within the Conservative Party who grasp that much more is at stake than the fate of a particular prime minister or even of a particular party. They express the hope that the by-elections ten days hence in Wakefield and Tiverton and Honiton will force a reckoning more decisive than last Monday’s confidence vote.
Others say that the approach of the annual party conference in Birmingham, which opens on 2 October, will focus the minds of the Tory movement. It is worth noting, though, that Johnson’s allies also see this event as the moment when he will relaunch himself and rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of scandal and humiliation.
What is so unsettling about the present impasse is that it reflects not a battle between factions, or ideologies, or competing visions of Britain’s future. All the talk of tax cuts, for instance, is purely medicinal: a sedative for a panicking party. There is a battle at the heart of all this though, and it could scarcely be more important. It is the contest between delusion and reality, between a system founded on lies and impunity and one in which accountability, rules and public service still mean something. A week on from the confidence vote, it is still frighteningly unclear which side will prevail.