When the Conservative party looks in the mirror what does it see? Beyond the bruising, what face peers back from the glass? The problem for the party is that no two MPs can agree – and that just might be Boris Johnson’s best chance of survival.
Contradictions shatter a unified surface that might once have offered the chance of self-reflection for the Conservative party. Some of the cracks are obvious, such as the one running through Downing Street over the proper size and limits of the state, for example, or that which separates No. 10 from many of its backbenches over Covid public health measures and liberty.
It has been obvious for some time that the Conservative heartland in the south was reaching the limits of its tolerance for resource transfers to the Midlands and the north dressed up as ‘levelling up’ – even if these resources were more rhetorical than real. What was supposed to be the unifying anthem of ‘levelling up’ still lacks a coherent tune with less than two years to go before the most likely date of the next general election. Maybe that’s because it’s impossible to give substance to something so ineffable.
The defeat in Chesham and Amersham was in large part about HS2, the great physical symbol of levelling up. The loss of North Shropshire might yet be seen as the moment the other pillar of the Johnson electoral coalition, Brexit, started to totter under the weight of its own contradictions.
Farmers are on the frontline of hard trade-offs over how best to exploit the opportunities available outside the EU. These are not dry debates in Whitehall but life and death decisions for many rural communities – and the voters are noticing.
‘Do I contradict myself?’ asked Walt Whitman in Song of Myself, ‘Very well I contradict myself. (I am large, I contain multitudes).’
Can I Prime Minister, dramatically diminished by a series of unforced errors, still sing the same Cakeist tune? That’s a legitimate question but it immediately raises another: can anyone else?
Take a moment to imagine what a Conservative party leadership contest would look like now, who would run and on what arguments.
What’s Rishi Sunak’s offer to the Midlands and the north given his stated desire to turn off the spending spigots? Does Liz Truss have any electoral appeal beyond core voters and members?
Is Grant Shapps really a runner? Isn’t it time to turn to a safe pair of hands? But if so whose? Maybe Jeremy Hunt will have another go?
The airwaves and column inches will fill with these and multiple other questions in the days and weeks to come. It will be exhausting but the chances of a settled consensus emerging are about nil.
Once the anger has subsided a little – and rarely can a recess have been as valuable to a Prime Minister as this one is to Johnson – many MPs may well decide against sending their letter – or email – to Sir Graham Brady. ‘Better to see the lay of the land in a few months’ time’, they will say to themselves. ‘Voters won’t forgive navel-gazing in the midst of a pandemic.’
The more honest might even admit that Brexit and levelling up both entail such difficult political trade-offs it is better to stick, for now, with the Boosterer-in-Chief than attempt a messy and public resolution.
Appropriately enough Johnson is now staking everything on the booster programme. If he can claim credibly that it saved the UK from the worst effects of the Omicron variant next year we will hear little else.
He may also sacrifice a few of his cabinet to the blood lust of his MPs in the New Year: both Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mark Spencer look vulnerable. Cabinet secretary Simon Case’s report on parties in No. 10 could well be served with a side dish of prime ministerial humble-pie even if it is broadly exculpatory. A reorganisation of his outer office may further be presented as a major reset, and this may be all his MPs need to claim they have forced him to change. Perhaps Michael Gove can, finally, offer a definition of levelling up that is both meaningful and unifying.
Johnson needs after all only to get to the summer to be all but sure of fighting the next election as prime minister and Tory leader. So after staring for a period at the distorted refracted image in the mirror don’t be surprised if the party opts to do nothing.