A Balliol-graduate and Oxford Union president who reshaped our relationship with Europe on the mandate of a decisive general election victory, but whose once-promising leadership was derailed by social unease, domestic tensions within the Union and economic turmoil. The comparison between Ted Heath and Boris Johnson is irresistible, if somewhat unintuitive.
In personality, the two could hardly be more different. Heath was a lifelong bachelor whose romantic life seems to have been non-existent. Johnson, whose escapades have taken up considerable inches of newspaper column, is set to be married for the third time. Heath was aloof, detail-focused and introverted, and struggled to form relationships with even his closest companions. Johnson is outgoing with a tendency towards the theatrical and a flair for political gestures.
Yet in the long view of history, our prime ministers are judged in spite of their personalities, not because of them. Flamboyance is no substitute for strong leadership. Reputations are built on political successes and failures. And through that lens, the first year of Johnson’s term draws uncomfortable parallels with Heath’s premiership.
Heath came to power in a surprise 1970 general election victory, in which Harold Wilson’s Labour government was ousted by a 31 seat Tory majority. The early elation of the victory quickly succumbed to the political realities of militant unions and a dreary economy. The descent was rapid, with a New Statesman article from 1970 noting 'Mr Heath – the miracle worker of not yet five months ago – now resembles nothing so much as a shorn Samson standing blindly in the temple as the pillars crash around him.'
His term is best remembered today for stagflation, three-day working weeks, an increasingly precarious Union, the Winter of Discontent and regular declarations of a state of emergency. If there was a lasting legacy of his premiership, it was bringing Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973, but the long-term divisions that sowed within the party and the recent reversal under Johnson have seen him virtually extinguished from Conservative memory.
It is often said that conservatism is primarily pragmatic, occupied with the pursuit of power over any fixed ideology. This is only partly true. The party has been at its most successful when it has been guided by a leader with a vision for a good society.
After Thatcher ousted Heath, she steered the party to three consecutive general election victories and served the longest of any 20th-century prime minister. Thatcher’s policies were a reflection of her values of individualism, duty, and competition. These deeply held beliefs allowed her to guide her party through economic and political turmoil, and where necessary crush resistance, whether from the wets or the unions.
Voters, of course, need to know that their government will act responsibly and can be trusted with the enormous responsibility which is placed in them. This is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. They also need a positive vision for the future – an image of a better society. So ideology must exist in some form, even if it is in a state of flux.
Like Heath, who was driven from a manifesto which was in some ways proto-Thatcherite back to the post-war economic consensus by union resistance, Johnson’s underlying political convictions are weak and seem to bend when challenged. More hospitals, police officers and nurses are welcome, but hardly visionary. It would be difficult to point to a central circle of his followers inspired by a common belief. The term 'Johnsonite' is unlikely to enter our political lexicon.
With an absence of ideology, Johnson’s strategy thus far has been to spend. This is foolish for many reasons. First, it does not win votes – citizens are persuaded by a driven leader with a story they can buy into, not by bribes. Second, when fiscal constraints inevitably force the Treasury to tighten its purse strings, any gains will be rapidly undone. Third, lavish government spending will certainly lead to anxiety within the party, and backbench mutterings will steadily grow in volume.
Though it is somewhat unfair to evaluate Johnson on a term which so far has been dominated by the response to an unprecedented pandemic, his actions have neither fiscally nor philosophically been conservative.
The ideological vacuum has left an opening which has rapidly been populated by organised leftist groups. Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter have enjoyed unchallenged platforms from which to sow social discord and Marxist ideologies. And the pandemic has meant the government lurches from one fight to the next, always on the back foot. One might have hoped that such challenges would provide the opportunity for a great leader to emerge in Johnson, but instead, they have shown him to be no Churchill.
Management has been uncertain, inconsistent, and doubtful. Those who followed the guidance in good faith were left feeling foolish as crowds packed public spaces to vandalise monuments, while police looked on. Radio silence from the government meant a public that was anxious for guidance was left to figure it out for themselves. The party of law and order seems to have forgotten what is expected of it, and those in the newly captured constituencies will be asking whether it was a good decision to lend their vote last year.
The 80-seat majority Johnson won last December gave the impression that the Conservatives could rule comfortably for at least the next five years, and in all likelihood beyond that. But most political developments since then have been worrisome, with weak leadership during the pandemic and a lack of political courage to face down those who seek to agitate societal divisions. Even Johnson’s personality seems to have become considerably more muted as he tries to reshape his image as a serious statesman.
In its typically ruthless manner, the Conservatives disown those politicians whom history views unfavourably. In Heath’s case, a deteriorating domestic situation was compounded by a European agenda which haunted the party up until the 2016 referendum and beyond. Johnson has taken us out of the EU, but he has yet to make a success of it. And with domestic strife and the question of Scottish independence increasingly prevalent, the difficulty of achieving a successful break grows.
People voted for the Conservatives in the 2019 election with the implicit promise that they would be a safe choice to steer Britain through whatever economic, social or political woes are thrown its way. Yet the zeitgeist is uncomfortably similar to that of the Heath’s premiership.
The responsibility of leadership is enormous for all prime ministers. Crises are an inevitability, and effective firefighting a vital skill. Yet underlying the daily political scraps, there must be a vision which guides the overarching narrative of an administration. If there is not, they risk being driven by events, rather than driving them.
Without strong convictions, Heath could not inspire in his colleagues and his voters a vision which could carry them through setbacks, and he was punished severely for it. Unless Johnson begins to shape a positive future for the Conservative party and the United Kingdom, he risks a similarly brief and undignified premiership.