Britain | Johnsonism without the jokes

The Conservative Party after Boris Johnson

The race to be the next prime minister is formally under way

The conservative party is a machine for winning and holding power. It has a remarkable capacity for reinvention, changing before change is forced upon it at the ballot box. Boris Johnson’s successor will be the party’s fourth leader, and Britain’s fourth prime minister, since it entered government in 2010. Before 2024 is out, they will be pursuing an unprecedented fifth general election victory.

It is important not to mistake a leadership contest for a manifesto for government: the candidates’ platforms are addressed to MPs and members, and not to the wider British public. The most radical candidates with the most eye-catching policies usually do not win.

Yet all the same the early days of a contest reveal where the centre of gravity lies within a party, and where it thinks its route to power lies. This one is no different.

These are indeed early days. On July 12th eight candidates made it through a nominations process; voting among Tory MPs will begin on July 13th and gradually whittle the field down to a final pair of candidates by July 21st. They will appear in hustings over the summer, before a ballot of party members leads to the unveiling of a new prime minister on September 5th.

Yet the contours of the party after Mr Johnson are already emerging—steelier than before, and to the right on economics and culture. Some of his most controversial policies have become a new consensus. “There has been a shift,” says one centrist minister, who is preparing for a battle. “But it is the genius of the Tory party to harness it and get it into a vaguely acceptable place.”

Like a body expelling an illness, the field of candidates violently repudiates Mr Johnson’s jocular and scandal-prone style of government. That was not a given. Mr Johnson has been the darling of the party activists since the mid-1990s, when his column in the Telegraph was required reading among Tory diehards. Until recently MPs swore that in his chaos lay a special bond with voters that would keep them in power for another decade.

Now all candidates boast of their integrity, seriousness and grip; none seeks to be his heir. Rishi Sunak, the former chancellor who leads among bookmakers, promises a new age of honesty and an end to “comforting fairy tales”. Kemi Badenoch, an insurgent from the right of the party, declares that voters are “exhausted by platitudes and empty rhetoric”. Penny Mordaunt, a former defence secretary, asks colleagues to pick a leader “because you trust their motives”. Inexperience has become a virtue: Tom Tugendhat, a former soldier who has never held ministerial office, promises a “clean start”.

The early rounds of the contest have centred on an auction of tax cuts—a promise that has long been a prerequisite for anyone who wishes to lead the Conservative Party but which has not been so central to a leadership race for decades. Under Mr Johnson, Mr Sunak announced tax increases equivalent to 1.6% of GDP, an increase in the tax burden exceeded only by Gordon Brown among chancellors since 1974. A gulf has opened up between Mr Sunak, who says tax cuts must wait until inflation is brought under control, and his rivals, who say they should start now and in dramatic fashion. Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, and Jeremy Hunt, a former foreign secretary, promise cuts to corporation tax. Others dangle reductions in income tax, fuel duty and domestic energy bills.

Mr Johnson, says a colleague, intends to use his remaining weeks in office to remind his colleagues of his vision of an activist state improving the lot of the poor northern towns he won in 2019. That vision may not be shared. It was too “New Labour” in its obsession with building roads and hospitals, says Mr Hunt. In its place there is a new emphasis on austerity in areas other than defence. Nadhim Zahawi, the serving chancellor, promises to cut departmental budgets by 20%; Ms Badenoch pledges a “limited government focused on essentials.”

Yet in other ways Mr Johnson has transformed his party. The tax cuts being promised by many of the candidates are largely unfunded; they reveal a Johnsonesque appetite for grandiose promises and aversion to hard choices. Reducing corporation tax to 15% at a stroke, as Mr Hunt proposes, would cost £31bn a year by 2026, almost the size of Britain’s defence budget, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, a think-tank. The goal of deficit reduction that was central to David Cameron’s administration is deeply unfashionable. “We can’t simply be accountants trying to balance the books the whole time. We have got to look to growth as well,” said Kwasi Kwarteng, who is backing Ms Truss’s candidacy.

Some of Mr Johnson’s most radical policies will survive him. In his final months in office, the government agreed a deal to deport some asylum-seekers to Rwanda. Ms Truss prepared legislation that would allow Britain unilaterally to rewrite the bit of the EU withdrawal treaty that bears on Northern Ireland. Such policies were deeply divisive within the party, regarded by much of its liberal wing as an abrogation of Britain’s obligations. Now they are its new norm: Mr Hunt and Mr Tugendhat, probably the most liberal candidates in the race, were both swift to endorse them.

Suella Braverman, the attorney-general and candidate of the Brexit right of the party, has sought to shift the dial even further, promising to shred the Northern Ireland protocol entirely and to leave the European Convention on Human Rights. “We didn’t get into this mess because we were too radical,” she wrote in the Daily Express. She is unlikely to win, but she may have an impact on the positions of others. “These contests can force candidates to make specific pledges they later regret,” says Tim Bale, a historian of the party at Queen Mary University of London. In 2005, for example, Mr Cameron acceded to the Eurosceptic right’s demand that the Tories leave the European People’s Party, the centre-right grouping in the European Parliament. It was the first concession on the road to Brexit.

Rows over culture, race and gender identity scarcely featured in the leadership contest of 2019, when Mr Johnson triumphed. The world has since changed, and these issues now course through the party’s veins. Ms Badenoch, a disciple of Thomas Sowell, an American academic, has made confronting “zero-sum identity politics” the centrepiece of her campaign. Candidates skirmish over who would be best-placed to resist transgender activism.

Whether this is terrain on which the Tories can fight and win the next general election is much less clear. Inflation is already squeezing living standards, and energy bills will jump again in the autumn. The National Health Service, which Mr Cameron and Mr Johnson regarded as the route to electoral success, is straining under severe backlogs; it has scarcely intruded on the contest.

All leadership races are an exercise in finding a candidate who can marry a party’s private desires with the concerns of the general public. Only Sajid Javid, another former chancellor, who withdrew from the race on July 12th, has dared remind the party of what all MPs know to be true: that, on current performance, they find themselves on “a trajectory to the same electoral oblivion” that hit the party in 1997. If the Tories are successfully to reinvent themselves again, they must become less introspective and look outwards more.

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